Comcast Goes Big on EBIF

Comcast has upgraded set-tops for 8 million digital cable subscribers to support the cable industry’s Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format technology, which the operator has used to launch two interactive-TV advertising services and HSN’s Shop by Remote application.

The 8 million homes represent about 44% of Comcast’s 18.0 million digital video customers nationwide (out of 23.8 million video customers total). CableLabs’ EBIF spec is designed to let interactive applications run on low-powered set-top boxes.

The operator will top 10 million EBIF-enabled homes by very early 2010, according to James Mumma, Comcast’s senior director of interactive-TV product development.

Chicago and San Francisco were the first Comcast systems to go live with EBIF this summer. Those were followed by Michigan; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Sacramento, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and several smaller markets.

Comcast is using the EBIF user agent developed by TVWorks, formerly a joint venture with Cox Communications that is now solely owned by Comcast. To date, the MSO has deployed EBIF user agents to Motorola set-tops; Comcast expects to begin rolling out EBIF user agents for Cisco boxes next year.

With the EBIF-enabled set-tops, Comcast is delivering a local “request for information” advertising service to let subscribers opt-in to receive free samples, coupons and services.

In addition, Comcast is selling sponsorships for a “remind-record” EBIF app that lets subscribers set a reminder or schedule a recording directly from an ad promoting an upcoming TV show or series.

Comcast Spotlight is selling both the RFI and remind-record units as enhancements to local ad inventory. For example, in San Francisco, Lifetime ran a remind-record promo for Project Runway.

The operator has already run interactive spots with about a dozen marketers in Chicago and the Bay Area, said Comcast Spotlight director of communications Chris Ellis. He declined to name the advertisers but said one was a regional retailer. “It’s early stages,” he said. “We’re not yet selling in all these markets.”

Canoe Ventures, backed by Comcast and the five other largest U.S. operators, had previously planned to launch an RFI service across the six operators before the end of 2009; it’s not clear Canoe will hit that target. Cablevision Systems, a Canoe member, launched its own RFI service in September on a proprietary ITV platform.

Meanwhile, the HSN Shop by Remote application lets Comcast customers in EBIF-enabled markets purchase products as they’re being featured on the shopping network using their remote control, with an average purchase time of less than 60 seconds, according to HSN vice president of advanced services John McDevitt.

Customers must have an account already set up with HSN; then they enter their phone number and ZIP code using their Comcast remote when ordering a product. HSN interactive shopping services also are available on Dish Network and Time Warner Cable’s Oceanic division.

In addition, last week Verizon Communications debuted an HSN widget for FiOS TV, which runs on the telco’s own interactive TV platform. That app allows subs to purchase the current on-air item as well as the last 15 products on-air and daily specials.