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The iTV Evangelist

As NBC Universal's interactive-television (iTV) guru, Jonathan Dakss has spearheaded efforts to virtually pull viewers into the company's TV programs. In the past two years, he and his team have launched more than 50 iTV events that have enabled viewers to play along with NBC's Deal or No Deal via remote control or to text comments onto a crawl on CNBC's Suze OrmanShow.

Last week, NBCU named Dakss VP of technical product development, giving him oversight for direct-to-consumer retailing via iTV, gaming and wireless. And to think that it all began a decade ago with dreams of buying the sweater off Jennifer Aniston's back.

Back in 1997, while a graduate student at MIT's Media Lab, Dakss developed prototypes for commercial and educational iTV. Using technology that enabled him to digitally tag and track objects within a piece of video, he and his professor, Mike Bove, created “HyperSoap,” a soap-opera video in which the props, wardrobe and scenery were all items available in the J.C. Penney catalogue.

“You could watch the show and point and click on the different objects with your television remote,” Dakss recalls, “and actually, y'know, buy them while you watched the show.”

The project convinced him of the commercial potential of iTV. After graduating in 1999, Dakss joined Bove and another friend in launching WatchPoint Media with the aim of bringing interactive commerce to hit shows like NBC's Friends.

“We wanted to be [known as] the 'Jennifer Aniston sweater guys,'” says Dakss.

Early Efforts in iTV

Although Dakss and his colleagues saw interactive promise in the early days of digital television, they encountered a lack of enthusiasm in a media industry still reeling from the dotcom bust.

“There was not a lot of momentum at the time,” Dakss recalls, adding, “although there were set-top boxes that were getting deployed that could certainly do this.”

After developing a proof of concept using a commercially available set-top box (one of the company's first key backers was Motorola), the WatchPoint team realized that mass interactivity on TV was still a way off in the U.S. Europe, however, was further along, and in 2001, Dakss and a few others decamped to London to broker deals with companies like Sky, Grenada and BBC.

Not long after Dakss settled in across the pond, WatchPoint was purchased by another Cambridge-born iTV outfit, GoldPocket Interactive, in 2003. Whereas WatchPoint had failed to persuade programmers and distributors of the commercial potential in iTV, GoldPocket had made inroads.

Dakss joined the company in Los Angeles and resumed developing single-screen interactive products (iTV contained within a TV–and–set-top system). He was also among the authors of R&D consortium CableLabs' enhanced-TV specification, which enables an interactive application to run with video programming.

Working with Oceanic, Time Warner Cable and Game Show Network (GSN), Dakss helped launch what he calls the first “true synchronous enhanced TV” in the U.S. in March 2005. The project, which used GoldPocket/WatchPoint technology and enabled home viewers to play along with shows like Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, brought the possibilities of iTV to the next stage.

Soon, NBCU came calling. That June, Executive VP/Chief Technology Officer Darren Feher and President of Media Works/Chief Information Officer John Eck invited Dakss to head up a new-technology division. For Dakss, the opportunity to run a “team that would help to bring new areas of technology and growth into the company across all the various business units” was just “too good to pass up.”

At NBCU, Dakss found himself as evangelist-in-chief, preaching the iTV gospel to a not entirely receptive flock. “There were groups within the company that weren't interested in iTV,” he says. “Or maybe they had the perception that it was too expensive to do effectively or weren't sure of exactly how many people could access the content which they thought went to a limited audience.”

An Interactive 'Deal'

Thanks to the support of Feher and NBCU executives like cable networks and digital content chief Jeff Gaspin and Bravo Senior VP of New Media and Special Projects Lisa Hsia, he began to make headway. But it was Deal or No Deal that vindicated Dakss' foresight on iTV.

“We got really helped by the success of Deal or No Deal, there is no doubt about it,” says Feher. “Because of the volumes that it attracted, it really became a springboard for the other activities.”

The success spawned iTV initiatives across NBCU, from Sci Fi Channel's polling viewers on Battlestar Galactica episodes to Bravo's sending mobile messages from contestants on Top Chef and Project Runway. Last year, the company's total iTV efforts yielded 33 million texts via short-message service and 107 million Web votes.

Although he acknowledges that game shows and unscripted programming are especially well-suited for interactivity, Dakss is optimistic that iTV will grow beyond those genres.

“The whole point,” he says, “is to really personalize our programming for people and for them to feel as if they are engaging with our content with all of the devices that they would use in a given day: their cellphone, their PSP, their laptop. At the end of the day, that is what interactivity is all about.”

Reviewing NBCU's growth in iTV, Feher doesn't stint in his praise for Dakss and his success at proselytizing. “We've got major initiatives in every modality from set-top to two-screen with a tremendous amount of text messaging,” he says. “And that has all happened on the back of Jon—Jon's sheer personal effort, his ability to work across the organization and leverage resources everywhere, from the engineering side to physical environments. And he's done it in a very boundless fashion.”