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TV Portal Picture Becomes More Clear

On interactive cable systems, the most valuable piece of on-screen real estate will be the TV portal.

But what, exactly, constitutes a TV portal? That's open to interpretation.

As WorldGate Communications Inc. senior vice president Gerard Kunkel noted, the term can be loosely applied to interactive program guides, Internet-on-TV screens, pop-up menus or walled gardens (yet another confusing term).

And certain conventions of graphic design and functionality are giving greater shape to how portals will look and the types of applications they will provide.

The portal essentially functions like a home page, providing an on-screen menu of applications that a viewer can access with a remote, such as an IPG, video-on-demand, the Web, electronic mail, local information or television commerce.

There is also greater agreement on an important question that's threatened to block portal development: Who owns it?

Recently, several major developers made their positions clear: The cable operator owns the portal.

Among those taking that stance is TV Guide Interactive Inc. senior vice president of product management Todd Walker. He said his company has been wrongly accused of seeking to make its IPG the portal to the TV. Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. holds patents that have a major influence on user-interface development.

"The TV portal is going to be controlled and owned by the MSO," Walker said during a recent Paul Kagan Associates Inc. Interactive TV Summit. "The IPG is just one application within a suite of applications in that portal."

Operators will be pleased to avoid a battle over control, but they face many choices in determining what their portals will look like, which features they will offer or how users will navigate them.

Kagan Conference attendees with stakes in the portal business included WorldGate, TV Guide Interactive, Digeo, ICTV Inc., iSurfTV Corp. and MetaTV.

Many other companies are seeking a plot of real estate in the portal neighborhood. At the behest of operators, virtually any interface designer, middleware provider, programmer, set-top manufacturer, broadband service or application developer could play a role.

Few cable systems currently provide full-fledged TV portals that include Internet access.

Several MSOs are beginning to roll out portal-like menus of digital services, including Insight Communications Co., which combines Liberate Technologies' middleware, Source Media Inc.'s guide, Diva Systems Corp.'s VOD product and, in one initial market, Commerce.TV Corp.'s shopping application.

Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures Inc. has established Digeo, a company developing a portal for Charter Communications. Allen chairs both Charter and Digeo, which currently has 215 employees working on engineering and content development.

While portals look somewhat like a Web home page, developers stress that they must be a natural part of the TV viewing experience. They need to be simple, utilitarian and, wherever possible, entertaining.

The best portals, in my opinion, include a reduced video screen so that viewers are never out of touch with programs they're watching.

Operators can provide portals using today's "thin-client" 2000 series digital set-tops. They don't have to wait for the more advanced 5000 series boxes, although the advanced models provide richer graphics and a built-in cable modem.

Convincing consumers to see and use portals is no slam dunk. Operators would like to use the portal as the "power-on screen," so it appears when a viewer first turns on their TV set.

But with current technology, viewers who leave their set-tops on when they turn off their TV sets will initially see the last channel they watched, rather than the portal. Oops.

Operators can use the portal screen to upsell services, offer customer service, promote programming, market their brand, run interactive ads or sell goods.

Portal providers also could provide cable systems with the ability to customize the screen for various household members. TVMentor Inc., for instance, offers an interface for kids.

Developers say portals must avoid overwhelming viewers with choices or requiring them to drill down through too many screens of data.

Digeo vice president of marketing Michael Markman said a portal screen should provide no more than seven different services. There must also be consistency among subsequent pages, he said.

With TV, "everyone talks about how you're relaxing and leaning back," Markman said. "I wonder about [transforming] people from couch potatoes to jumping beans.

"I think the goal is to appeal to the inner potato. And if you can spark the inner potato, I think you can start getting them to lean forward a little bit."

The portal screen provides valuable property for advertising and t-commerce.

Walker said Gemstar-TV Guide research shows up that to 30 percent of an interface screen can be devoted to advertising before viewers are offended.

Though it's early to know exactly how consumers will use portals, Kunkel said 62 percent of surveyed WorldGate subscribers say they regularly browse for product information and 37 percent use "hyperlinked" advertising — "a remarkable number when you consider this is a brand-new technology."

As Markman said, "We're still training the audience and, most importantly, the audience is training us."

Digital Dilemma by Craig Leddy, a principal of Interactive TV Works Inc., appears every other week. If you've got a digital dilemma, contact him at LeddyColumn@aol.com.