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DirecTV Says YES to Interactive Yankees

YES Network has rolled out interactive telecasts of New York Yankees games on the DirecTV satellite service, becoming the first network to offer such “single-screen” baseball content. Through “YES Interactive only on DirecTV,” viewers can use a simple on-screen menu to access up-to-the-minute statistics, box scores, standings, schedules and player bios, all provided by MLB Advanced Media.

For home games, they can also view a “Bonus Cam” that shows a different view of the action on the left side of the screen alongside the primary feed. For example, viewers can watch a base-runner taking a lead while the primary feed shows the pitcher throwing to home plate.

YES’ enhanced telecasts are another example of how improvements in digital set-top software are letting programmers deliver extra content and features to their most avid viewers. NBC partnered with DirecTV, EchoStar and Time Warner Cable to provide interactive features during its Winter Olympics coverage, including digital “mosaics” that simultaneously displayed all four NBC Olympics channels. With EchoStar, CNN has launched an interactive application called CNN Enhanced News that adds content from the cable network’s Website to regular programming. Bravo offered interactive polling during its Top Chef reality show to selected Time Warner Cable markets.

Fox, meanwhile, may roll out its own interactive baseball application for the World Series this year, according to a DirecTV executive.

YES’ interactive telecasts were officially introduced last week after a soft launch. The service will be promoted through the use of an on-screen “snipe” graphic. An interactive-capable set-top is required for the service, and DirecTV is giving free box upgrades to interested viewers. Because of MLB rights issues, the interactive content is available only to DirecTV subscribers in the Yankees’ home TV market, which comprises New York, Connecticut, and parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It isn’t available for high-def broadcasts, although that should change by next season: Interactive-capable HD set-tops from DirecTV are due to hit the market this fall.

YES has briefed cable partners about the launch but has no immediate plans to launch such a service on cable.

Although DirecTV won’t divulge detailed subscriber numbers, YES COO Ray Hopkins says about half the set-tops in the market are capable of receiving the service. So far, the response has been positive, he adds, particularly since initial users didn’t receive any instruction on how to use it. According to DirecTV’s statistics, more than one-third of eligible viewers used the service, and half used it six times or more.

“It’s a fun application,” says Hopkins, whose favorite “Bonus Cam” moment was footage of slugger Jason Giambi arguing with the umpire while the primary telecast feed showed a replay of a called third strike against him. “That’s a very intriguing view for a real baseball fan.”

“YES Interactive only on DirecTV” is based on NDS software that DirecTV used last season to deliver interactive components for its “NFL Sunday Ticket” package, as well as for interactive broadcasts of the Winter Olympics and NCAA basketball tournament. “This is the culmination of all that we have learned,” says Eric Shanks, executive VP of DirecTV Entertainment. “This is the best-developed application, the easiest to use and the most in-depth.”

Key vendors include encoder manufacturer Tandberg and graphics supplier VizRT, which creates the split-screen view. MLB Advanced Media supplies the statistics, which are transmitted via satellite as live data streams and captured by the set-top’s Web browser. The Bonus Cam feed is relayed from YES’ production truck to DirecTV’s operations center in California, where it is composited with the regular-game feed and transmitted as a “virtual channel” that DirecTV subscribers tune to when they select the blue button on the interactive menu bar.

“YES Interactive” is free for existing DirecTV “Total Choice” subscribers. Selling sponsorships for such features as the Bonus Cam seems natural, but no advertising is planned for this year, due mainly to the midseason launch.

While neither YES nor DirecTV would divulge what they’re spending on the telecasts, executives from both view it as an investment in making their services more appealing to consumers. Says YES President/CEO Tracy Dolgin, “If we never sold an interactive ad on this, the stickiness alone would make for a positive economic impact on YES.”