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Putting some Wow in DTV

Bringing low-cost digital reception and interactivity to analog TV sets is Steve Lindsley's vision. To realize it, he is planning a 50-home trial of his Wow Digital TV service in Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics in February.

With the proprietary Wow box attached to TVs and telephone line, participating homes will be able to receive digital broadcasts of Olympics coverage on their analog sets, call up data and make purchases over their TVs.

For the trial, Lindsley will have the help of Bonneville International, owner of Salt Lake City's NBC affiliate, KSL-TV. The station is committed to broadcasting 70 hours of local Olympics coverage over its digital station, KSL-DT, and enhancing it with Wow interactive data. Lindsey is the former head of KSL-DT.

If the trial goes well, he hopes to take the service to market next year, selling the boxes for $200.

Here's how it works. A small icon appears in an upper corner of the picture, informing viewers that the broadcast is enhanced. Clicking on that icon shrinks the video screen (à la Headline News) to reveal a series of "virtual" channels that lead to more information about the program being viewed or to the transactional services.

Lindsley knows how he will market the service to broadcasters. Stations will share in revenue generated by the on-screen transactions. They will also be able to sell sponsorships for interactive data links to weather, sports, entertainment and other services through the TV. More than one station within a market can be involved in the service.

Lindsley will provide stations with software templates from U.K.-based OpenTV that will allow station staff to insert data into their digital signal. The Wow boxes are manufactured by Advanced Digital Broadcast, of Taipei.

According to Lindsley, the Wow box can receive digital signals off the air or from a cable box.

Lindsley said he'll negotiate various content deals, to make the service more attractive. "Content is the most important reason why we'll eventually succeed or fail."

The Wow system will not use the Internet initially, he said, but it might do so down the road. All enhanced data will come from the station itself.

"The viewer never leaves the on-air program," Lindsley explained. "That's important because today's competitive market requires that stations keep viewers watching. The two-screen approach [TV and Web site] just hasn't worked for broadcasters the way we all thought it would."

ADB has developed the 8-VSB receiver chips necessary to receive digital signals and has included OpenTV interactive software to display and facilitate interactivity. Both ADB and OpenTV are major investors in Wow Digital TV, Lindsley said, but he wouldn't reveal how much money they have committed.

Offering the service free to consumers is the only way interactive TV can be successful in America, Lindsley said, adding that giving them digital reception for $200 is sure to be a hit.

Others have tried subscription-based data broadcast services to consumers' PCs. But Lindsley believes that's the wrong model for broadcasters. Stations don't want to be in the computer or Internet business, he said. "They want to be in the broadcasting business: We're broadcast-centric and will continue that way."