Station to Station: Boston Viewers Test Interactive TV

In the coming weeks, a few station executives should get a clearer picture of whether interactive television will finally be the paradigm-shifter it's long promised to be.

Later this month, select Boston viewers will be able to add to their TV experience by clicking their remote to find more information on a coming storm, Big Papi's success against lefties, or a new SUV they've seen on the air. Hearst-Argyle's WCVB completed installation of Backchannelmedia's interactive TV software last week, and will be the first station to test the program with special set-top boxes in a few hundred homes. A select group of local and national advertisers will also be taking part.

Stations such as Media General's WJAR Providence, Meredith's WFSB Hartford and those in the New Age TV group are also in talks to test the program. (Scroll down to watch a WGBH-TV segment on interactive TV and Backchannelmedia.) And the Backchannelmedia principals have been in Los Angeles the past few weeks, chatting with the likes of Disney, various producers, advertising agencies (including Horizon Media) and stations such as KCBS and KABC.

The WCVB deployment follows some eight months of talks between station brass and Backchannel. “We have to be a little more entrepreneurial and try new ways,” says WCVB President/General Manager Bill Fine, who won't offer the exact start date for the test. “People are as engaged in TV as ever, and this is a natural marriage of the TV and the PC.”

Backchannel's high-energy founder/co-CEO Michael Kokernak, who's also in talks with satellite and cable TV providers, believes the product can expand the TV advertising pool dramatically. Kokernak says the annual TV ad market size of $58 billion would jump to $103 billion with a 30% adoption rate of Backchannel, and $150 billion if adoption spreads to 60% of U.S. households.

Of course, the concept of marrying the TV and PC—and the vast pools of profit it could lead to—has been kicked around for decades. Warner's interactive Qube system never quite caught on following its 1977 launch; one hears little of WebTV (now MSN TV) these days; and the Time Warner/AOL merger, which many heralded as the symbol of TV/Web convergence, is now viewed as a disaster.

The Backchannel model can work in a number of ways. Kokernak gives the example of watching John Mayer perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live, then using the remote to purchase the Mayer song on iTunes. Or, a viewer of an auto ad can click on an icon to get more information on the car (as well as local dealer information) sent to their Backchannel Web account. Instead of trying to remember a Website that pops up in an ad or a promo for The Office, a click sends the URL straight to the user's account.

Backchannel's true believers say interactive TV might've finally reached its tipping point. “The idea of convergence is as old as time, but no one's been able to come up with the K-I-S-S—Keep It Simple, Stupid—technology,” says WJAR President/General Manager Lisa Churchville. “[Backchannel] is simple and accessible, and you use it in a way that's extremely familiar—clicking your remote.”

Kokernak's plan is to license the program to stations for a monthly fee, and not take a cut of ad revenue. “We'll completely stay out of the economic model of TV stations and content,” he says.

The trials will show if viewers, already bombarded by pop-ups on the computer, will go for wielding the remote like they do a mouse. A Backchannel study says that 60% of viewers “would click on a TV advertisement using their remote control if doing so would cause an electronic coupon to be e-mailed to their inbox,” while 40% would click on the screen to get more information about a product.

Station managers say they have little to lose in trying the concept, which fits with stations' plan to increase their role in the community. “People are using television stations as a deeper source of information,” says Churchville. “Something like this is complimentary to your news.”

Fine is eager to flip the switch and see if interactive TV scores in Boston. “The potential is there for it to be a game-changer for stations,” he says, “and we could use one right now.”

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Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.