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CTAM Live: Comcast, TWC Strike Up ITV Bandwagon

BOSTON—Comcast and Time Warner Cable will support interactive TV standards on more than 10 million set-top boxes by the end of 2008, and executives with the U.S.’s two biggest cable companies urged programmers to “get on the bandwagon” to develop ITV applications to exploit the technology.

“You should be thinking about this right now,” said Mark Hess (pictured), Comcast’s senior vice president of video product development. “It’s not a matter of if anymore; it’s a matter of when.”

Hess, speaking on the panel “Interactive TV: Truly Enhanced Television” at the CTAM Summit ’08 here Tuesday, said Comcast will have deployed an agent capable of running Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) applications in 10 million homes in its Motorola systems by the end of 2008.

Comcast expects to bring EBIF to its entire Motorola footprint by mid-2009, and is working on an EBIF solution for its Scientific Atlanta set-tops. With respect to tru2way—a fuller-featured ITV specification—the MSO’s Chicago and Denver systems began supporting that within the past month and Comcast expects to widen tru2way support to all its markets by mid-2009.

“If you’re not on the bandwagon, get on. The platform is being deployed,” Hess said.

Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, already has deployed 1.5 million tru2way-enabled set-top boxes and plans to support EBIF on its entire installed base of boxes in 2009, said Bob Benya, senior vice president of video product strategy.

“We’re really looking forward to people stepping up and getting involved,” Benya said. “There’s going to be a large base of households you can reach with interactive applications.”

Every HD-capable set-top Time Warner Cable provides to new customers now runs the tru2way stack and tru2way-based interactive program guide, Benya noted: “We’re going to be experiencing massive growth in this category.”

Establishing a large, standardized foundation for interactive TV is an imperative for Canoe Ventures, the joint venture among six cable operators to develop advanced advertising services and technologies.

Benya said Canoe and the major MSOs will work together to develop a standard to measure interactive TV usage.

But ITV must extend to programming as well, Hess emphasized. “The fact of the matter is, if we just do this around advertising we’ve got a problem,” he said. “We have to get people to interact with the content—then they’ll interact with the advertising.”

David Preisman, Showtime Networks vice president of interactive TV, demonstrated several applications the premium network has executed.

One interactive advertising campaign was targeted to different subscribers: an offer to subscribe to Showtime for $10 per month was presented to subs with no premiums; those who subscribed to HBO or Starz received a $5 offer; and Showtime subscribers didn’t get any offer.

“We’re looking for ways to build new experiences for Showtime with the remote control,” he said.

Time Warner Cable has found consumers are most likely to use interactive TV features that are simple and add to the viewing experience, Benya said.

The operator has run voting and polling applications tied to several shows, including Bravo’s Top Chef and NBC’s Last Comic Standing. Those have averaged 17% viewer participation rates, and as high as 41%. By comparison, TV shows that provide viewer voting by cell phone or Web typically see response rates of 2% to 5%, according to Benya.

Noted Hess: “It’s not convergence of technology that’s driving ITV, it’s convergence of behavior. We have to remember that.”