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Service with a WOW

WOW Digital TV has signed up broadcast groups and stations to roll out its digital television boxes and services designed to carry DTV signals and related interactive services over-the-air.

Comprising 38 stations, the station groups are LIN, McGraw-Hill, Sunbelt Communications and Larry H. Miller Communications. According to WOW Digital TV Chairman and CEO Steve Lindsley, the deals call for a partnership between WOW Digital and the stations to test and roll out WOW's services to viewers.

KSL-TV Salt Lake City; KBYU(TV) Provo, Utah; and KUED(TV) Salt Lake City are testing the WOW Digital system now, sending DTV signals and interactive content related to the Winter Olympics to 30 households.

Stations at the groups will install tools and software to help create services for a single-screen environment for data and video. The content will be sent along with the digital TV signals and received by set-top boxes in participating viewers' homes. The boxes will check receivability as well as the services' acceptability to consumers and viewers.

"The plan is to launch in Salt Lake City sometime in the third quarter, ideally around the time of the new fall season," says Lindsley. "By the fourth quarter, we want to be in two or three other markets before an aggressive rollout in 2003."

The WOW Digital TV service is based on a $200 set-top box that can be hooked up to either a digital or an analog TV. OpenTV (which is an investor) will provide its platform to deliver interactive content related to the video or shopping and financial services to the set-top box.

Lindsley says that, ideally, the box will be offered to viewers for free, with revenues for both WOW Digital and stations coming from a number of sources: national advertising offering related on-screen commerce opportunities; a cut of any sales from those opportunities; premium services, such as PVR functionality on a subscription basis (which would also drive the cost beyond the $200 baseline); and possible business opportunities related to the viewer data collected.

"It's up to us with the advertising partners or vendors to get that subsidy down so it's no or low cost," says Lindsley. "The broadcaster won't bear that burden."

Gary Chapman, president and CEO of LIN Broadcasting, hopes WOW Digital will get momentum that previous efforts haven't.

"Until someone can solve the set-top problem penetration will be low and success will be limited," he says. "The partners [WOW] has provide better content, and, on the box side, there are partnerships with companies that make boxes [Advanced Digital Broadcast and ST Microelectronics], and that has never been done before."