WebTV, CBS in an Interactive Sporting Mood

The first fruits of a previously announced relationship between Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV Networks and CBS hit the airwaves recently, when the two companies announced the development of interactive-TV programming for the network's college-football broadcasts.

The first interactive game, between the University of Alabama and Auburn University, aired Nov. 18. Earlier this year, CBS and WebTV announced they would develop approximately 500 hours of sports and entertainment interactive programming during the 2000-2001 programming season.

The debut of interactive TV-sports programming sets the stage for Microsoft's upcoming release of its "UltimateTV" service. Next year, that offering will compete head-to-head with America Online Inc.'s "AOL TV."

For the rest of the college-football season, however, subscribers to WebTV Plus will be able to interact with select games broadcast by CBS. Interactive features include enhanced statistics, searchable player biographies, team background information, a "virtual coach" feature that lets viewers predict plays and respond to live polling and trivia questions.

"We realize that sports is going to be a big part of interactive programming," said Shari Glusker, manager of interactive services for WebTV.

The programming was created using the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) standard, which uses interactive "triggers" sent in within the video signal's Vertical Blanking Interval (VBI).

The triggers act as pointers to Web addresses from which viewers can access team and player information. Other real-time data and statistics, such as rushing yardage, are fed to viewers' WebTV Plus set-top boxes during the game.

L-shaped overlays form interactive menus that surround the video, said Glusker.

The move into interactive sports programming "marks an important sign in WebTV's future as it migrates away from WebTV to UltimateTV," said Sean Badding, vice president of business development for The Carmel Group.

The WebTV Internet-over-TV service has not caught on, as Microsoft anticipated when it bought the service in 1996. WebTV has been stuck at 1 million subscribers for some time.

"It hasn't been the return on investment for Microsoft, but that will change," said Badding.

Microsoft announced the UltimateTV service in June, partnering with DirecTV Inc. and Thomson Multimedia. The ITV service is expected to debut shortly and will be "much better, stronger and more powerful than WebTV," said Badding.

UltimateTV will include personal video recording services, as well as interactive programming and program guides.

With AOL TV's launch in June, UltimateTV will find a formidable competitor for interactive TV viewers. AOL TV is also packaged with DirecTV service.

However, citing the experience that Microsoft gained through WebTV, Badding said UltimateTV will, in effect, be a second-generation product. AOL TV, on the other hand, is the No. 1 online provider's first foray into ITV programming, he noted.

"2000 has been a year for positioning," said Badding. "2001 is going to be war."