Called the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum, the new organization promises to unite the television, PC, and consumer electronics industries behind a single way of sending and receiving interactive content. "We hope the new proposal -- and the broad industry support -- will make people feel comfortable with enhanced TV," said Steve Guggenheimer, group product manager for Microsoft Corp.'s digital TV group. "We want to get this out there sooner, rather than later."
The ATVEF founding members are mainly TV content creators, including CNN, Discovery Communications Inc., The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS), NBC Multimedia Inc., Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Tribune Co., and Warner Bros. (NYSE:TWX)
But the group also includes PC industry giants Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC), cable industry standardization organization CableLabs, digital satellite provider DIRECTV Inc., consumer electronics maker Sony Corp. (NYSE:SNE), digital cable center NDTC Technology and interactive TV software maker Network Computer Inc.
TV networks adamant
For the creators of TV and multimedia content, the deal was a must. Those networks dabbling in creating interactive content spent too much time converting the interactive elements to the various platforms, such as Intel's Intercast, Microsoft's WebTV, and digital satellite formats.
"The NBCs and the CNNs of the world told us that they were not going to create interactive content until there was a single standard," said Larry Taymor, vice president of standards and intellectual property for Network Computer Inc.
And for digital satellite TV service DIRECTV, getting in on the ground floor was important.
"Being a founder, we can help pave a way for this new standard in TV entertainment," said DIRECTV spokeswoman Gina Scalese. "It made sense for us to be there."
Products by next year
The spec will undergo several months of public scrutiny.
"There is nothing in it that is proprietary to any one company," said NCI's Taymor.
According to ATVEF members, a final spec is expected to be completed by the fourth quarter of 1998, with products incorporating the new protocols available by early 1999.
But industry analyst Cynthia Brumfield is quick to point out that this deal does not add up to an instant market. "Setting standards in the world of enhanced broadcasting is a good thing," said the analyst with new-media watcher Paul Kagan Associates, "but that does not necessarily mean this is going to take off. There is a host of other problems."
Microsoft has said that its WebTV boxes will be software upgradable to the new spec. "Once it is all done, we only have to upgrade our boxes once," said Guggenheimer.
The Forum is also approaching international standards bodies to make the resulting spec and global standard. But Sony, for one, was hesitant to speculate on whether other markets would embrace the new proposal.
"This is a U.S. specification," said Mack Araki, manager of corporate communications for Sony Corp., "but the overall architecture is applicable for global markets."