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LATV Tries Texting on TV

LATV, the Hispanic-focused bilingual network carried as a digital-multicast channel by Post-Newsweek Stations and others, is experimenting with text-to-screen technology developed by Seattle-based Blue Frog Media.

LATV is using Impulse, which Blue Frog described as an “Adobe Flash-based overlay service,” to allow viewers to send SMS (short-messaging-service) text messages from their mobile phones that are then displayed as an on-screen graphic.

The network rolled out Impulse on two of its most popular programs, Videos por Favor and Videos a la Cart, which air weekdays from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. (PST), enabling viewers to “chat” or otherwise comment on the programming via texting.

While text-to-screen is well-established in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, it is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. NBC Universal has experimented with text-to-screen applications for cable properties like Bravo’s Top Chef, mainly in partnership with cable and satellite operators. SMS-texting applications that let viewers participate in polls, for example, have been used by broadcast and cable programmers for years as a way to generate additional revenue as the networks get a cut of the text message fees charged by the wireless carriers. That same model applies to the Impulse system.

Venture-backed Blue Frog -- which was founded in 2004 as a company that sold ring tones and wallpapers to wireless subscribers -- is using the back-office infrastructure it created for that business to manage Impulse as a turnkey service, president and CEO Victor Siegel said. That includes an English-language call center in Manila, Philippines, and a Spanish-language call center in Tijuana, Mexico.

Once a viewer sends a text message, it is routed to Blue Frog moderators, who immediately review the content and approve the message for broadcast. Messages are then transmitted via the Internet to a small receiving unit installed at the local station, which connects to existing master-control switchers to facilitate on-air display.

“Our model is ridiculously inexpensive to get started,” Siegel said, adding that the hardware required at the station costs under $5,000.

In the case of LATV, Blue Frog had to do some special integration work because LATV uses a “station-in-a-box” system from Miranda Technologies instead of standard master-control technology. The company modified its box to be able to ingest the serial digital (SDI) output from the Miranda Xstation unit “downstream” and insert the Flash overlay without compromising the picture quality.

Siegel won’t disclose the financial terms of Blue Frog’s deal with LATV for the Impulse service. His company already has an existing business relationship with LATV, as it leases airtime in the overnight hours to run Bulla, a text-TV (TXTV) music network that lets viewers send messages to enter contests for prizes such as cash giveaways or Microsoft Xbox games.

He said the overarching goal of Impulse is to let stations create similar promotional opportunities for advertisers through the text overlay, beyond just making money off the messaging itself.

“The idea of promotions is part and parcel of the service,” said Siegel, who is actively marketing Impulse to other station groups.

LATV president and chief operating officer Howard Bolter said polling, voting, games and contests are all planned using the Impulse service.

“We’re going to do a combination of everything, but it will all be in context with the program,” he added. “It won’t be too overbearing.”

For now, the overlay service is mainly letting LATV viewers give “shout-outs” to their friends and sometimes even facilitating ongoing conversations between two people.

“It’s quite something,” Bolter said. “It’s clear our audience really loves mobile and really loves text messaging.”