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DirecTV Starts Flipping Wink Switch

DirecTV Inc. last week started beaming Wink Communications Inc.'s interactive-TV software to owners of more than 1 million Wink-enabled, RCA-branded DirecTV receivers already in the field.

The direct-broadcast satellite provider expects all 1 million boxes to be activated with the new service, called DirecTV Interactive Powered by Wink, by the end of this month.

"There's been a lot of talk for a long time about interactive television," Wink CEO Maggie Wilderotter said. "Passing the 1 million subscriber mark is a huge milestone for the industry."

Thomson Consumer Electronics has sold Wink-capable DirecTV receivers since late last year, and expects to have shipped 3 million Wink-capable boxes by the end of 2000.

Going forward, the plan is to install Wink software in DirecTV receivers at the factory, so they'll be ready for consumer use as soon as they are sold. The companies would send software updates via satellite as new features are added.

To alert subscribers of this month's software downloads, DirecTV sent out direct-mail flyers one week in advance, with information on available interactive features. Once the software is installed, customers will receive on-screen messages offering an interactive tour of the service.

DirecTV customers can deactivate Wink, but DirecTV Global Digital Media senior vice president Brad Beale doesn't think they'll want to.

"It's fairly unobtrusive," Beale said of the small, on-screen Wink icon that alerts viewers that enhanced programming, advertising or television-commerce applications are available.

During earlier DirecTV beta tests-and in previous cable-system deployments-"we've never had anybody ask us" to turn Wink off, Wilderotter said.

As early adopters of digital technologies and heavier-than-average pay-per-view customers, DirecTV subscribers "are not shy about using their remote control to point and click," Wilderotter noted.

In addition to Wink-enhanced programming from networks including The Weather Channel, ESPN and CNN, DirecTV will also devote a dedicated channel to the Wink service. The companies plan to demonstrate some of the applications on the channel at a press briefing in New York Thursday (Oct. 19).

Wilderotter said the virtual channel will allow DirecTV subscribers to use their remote controls to upgrade DirecTV packages, and would likely add other shopping services in time for the holiday gift-buying season.

The system can distinguish between transactions that require real-time interactivity and less time-sensitive ones, and determine whether to send out an immediate phone call or wait until the next day, Wilderotter said.

Though DirecTV can gather general usage data from each subscriber click, the company will also poll Wink customers through phone calls to see which features they like and don't like, Beale said.

Most of DirecTV's early customers would need to buy a new receiver to take advantage of the Wink interactive services. DirecTV plans to test on-air advertising about the Wink service to its entire subscriber base sometime after the software downloads are finished, Beale said.

By the end of next year, all DirecTV receiver vendors are expected to ship Wink-enabled boxes.

DBS rival EchoStar Communications Corp. has already signed a deal to deliver Wink on its OpenTV Inc.-capable set-top boxes. EchoStar is likely to launch that service in the second half of next year, Wilderotter said.

While the Wink user interfaces would be essentially the same across platforms, DBS and cable operators can develop specific, exclusive competitive features, Wilderotter noted.

Local cable operators, for example, can use Wink to develop interactive community-based content that sets them apart from DBS, she said.

Last week, several leading advertising agencies-including Carat North America, Starcom Worldwide, J. Walter Thompson and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners-agreed to create Wink-enhanced advertising for their clients. Wilderotter noted that DirecTV's aggressive rollout of the service will help the company and its partners sell more interactive ads.

DirecTV shares in revenues from each Wink-enabled transaction its subscribers make.