Keeping ITV's Flame Burning

There hasn't been much good news in interactive television over the past two years, but that doesn't mean companies like Comcast Corp., ABC, ESPN, Turner Broadcasting System Inc., DirecTV Inc. or Game Show Network have given up on interactivity.

Those companies are among the major sponsors of the Interactive Television Alliance, a newly formed organization designed to keep the home fires burning until the economic models to make ITV a success can be developed.

The group's immediate goals: a consumer-outreach campaign and the creation of an Enhanced Advertising Lab and an Extended Television Initiative to spur growth in two-platform (TV/PC) interactivity.

The ITA — an amalgam of companies that represent content, advertising, marketing distribution, software production, hardware, services and data or commerce industries still active in the ITV space — was formed in the second half of 2002.

The group is run by Ben Mendelson and Allison Dollar, partners in the association-management firm 2degree Partners. Mendelson, who had represented direct-response companies in the past, said three groups — the Addressable Media Coalition, the Advanced TV Forum and the Two Screen Promoters Group (put together by Intel Corp.) — reformed last summer as one unit, under the ITA banner.

Many of the companies in all three groups wanted to narrow the scope of their financial commitment to various outside organizations in a tough economy, he said.

"We are a broadband organization representing content, technology, platforms," Mendelson said. Indeed, more than 130 companies have paid $2,500 for standard memberships and 23 firms paid $5,000 for governing memberships.

Those 23 companies make up a Who's Who
list of outfits that perhaps stand the best chance of making interactive TV a reality. They include: The Walt Disney Co. (and units ABC and ESPN), Turner (and unit Cable News Network), Game Show Network, Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble Co., Starcom MediaVest, The Phelps Group, Comcast, DirecTV, Open TV Inc., Liberate Technologies Icn., Microsoft Corp., Canal Plus U.S. Technologies, WorldGate, NTN/Buzztime, Decision Mark, Ascent Entertainment Group, Meta TV, Wink Communications Corp., ACTV Inc., Intel, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc.

"Clearly, there were some problems in the interactive-TV industry," Mendelson said. That list of dilemmas starts with a lack of viable business models, and includes middleware standards, capital-funding concerns and the differing agendas of MSOs and direct broadcast satellite operators.

"The thought was if we didn't get together, interactive television just wouldn't happen for another five years," Mendelson said. "But if we did all get together and solve some specific issues, we could make this stuff happen in the next 18 months. We wanted to focus on problems that were holding up deployment, and that's usually money and technology."

ITA's first initiative is its Consumer Outreach Campaign. "The average Joe doesn't know what ITV means," Mendelson said.

The ITA plans to create a 30-minute infomercial explaining the value and benefits of ITV, to be tailored to specific platforms.

"We're trying to communicate value and create a level of excitement and interest," Mendelson said. "It will be tailored for each distribution channel, but will have the same look and feel all over the country."

The campaign also will include print supplements, e-mail marketing and kiosk-based ITV demonstration centers. Mendelson hopes to have the effort underway by summer.

Too soon for an ITV campaign, you say? The ITA begs to differ. That's because it is laboring under a wide definition of ITV that includes not just middleware-delivered interactivity (gaming, commerce, interactive ads or interactive guides), but video-on-demand, digital video recorders, and synched-to-broadcast Internet content — some of which is presently available.

"VOD is the base platform for ITV," Mendelson said. Indeed, the servers and advanced set-tops deployed for VOD will help enable new interactive services.

"And PVR is a form of TV behavior, similar to the VOD environment, that has interactive components," Mendelson added.

The Enhanced Advertising Lab is designed to bring advertisers, agencies and content providers together under one roof.

"The frustration for advertisers is that they've seen a lot of ITV over the years," said Mendelson, who adds that clients are indeed ready to spend money on that medium. "Interactive TV advertising is a form of direct response and direct marketing. You can create value in much smaller numbers than traditional 30-second ads; you only need a few thousand people.

"We find content providers and advertisers, stick them in a room, close the door and tell them to make some programming," Mendelson said. "If you get the right 12 people in the room," it can work, he said.

The Extended Television Initiative will seek to increase the dialogue between software and content companies that produce synched-to-telecast Internet content. Plans call for creation of a lab environment in which software and content companies can experiment.

The ITA also plans to create a high-end home theater demonstration exhibit. An early version premiered at last month's Western Show, and future iterations are planned for this year's National Show and National Association of Broadcasters convention.

"We also plan to have little demo centers on the consumer side that show technology that you can use today," he said. Such centers would be found in shopping malls or at point-of-purchase displays in consumer-electronics stores, he said.