Interactive content on the fast track

Content will be waiting when interactive TV devices hit the market -- but will the advertisers?

LAS VEGAS -- Fearful of being left behind in the digital slow lane, broadcasters are putting emphasis on developing interactive content for the fall of this year, said content producers at the National Association of Broadcasters here on Wednesday.

"Broadcasters want to get started now," said Kris Jacob, manager of WebTV Network Inc.'s ITV business group. "They don't want to be caught standing still (when interactive TV arrives)."

Already, more than 14 channels, including ABC, NBC, Home and Garden TV, CSPAN and The Weather Channel, have enhanced shows. In addition, with Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC) and NBC working together on content for a dozen enhanced shows to be aired this fall, more than 30 programs will hit the Big Four networks this fall.

Education turns to excitement
That's great for independent creators of enhanced content, who recently switched from educating broadcasters to actually expanding shows.

"We see this as a huge market," said Larry Namer, chairman of enhanced-content maker Steeplechase Media Inc. "We are currently inundated with projects." One project: Adding enhanced content to the No. 2 syndicated TV show "Judge Judy."

To explain why broadcasters have started getting excited about interactivity, Namer likens the advent of interactive TV to the arrival of color. The first color programs boosted ratings because people will color televisions wanted to use the new feature.

Similarly, as set-top boxes start invading homes, shows that can take advantage of the features in a set-top will get higher ratings. "The necessity of adding enhancements to TV is now an accepted fact," said Namer.

ATVEF to help
The advent of a possible single standard for generating interactive content is also helping. Announced in June 1998, the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum, or ATVEF, adds HTML and other Internet technologies to digital television broadcasts, allowing content creators to add interactivity to programs. Both Steeplechase, and its rival Screamingly Different Entertainment, develop only ATVEF-compliant content.

Still, WebTV's dominance in its share of the U.S. markets is translating into almost all content being optimized for its platform. "Today, the market is demanding almost 100 percent WebTV Plus content -- and everyone wants it now," said Marlin Davis, president and executive producer at Screamingly Different.

Namer agrees. "The only reason we are working with WebTV exclusively, is that that is all there is right now."

Spreading the wealth
However, WebTV's decision to comply with the ATVEF standard could help other technology. The network service's installed base of 700,000 users could entice more content makers to create ATVEF-compliant services, boosting demand for any set-top box that supports ATVEF, not just WebTV.

Still, several key factions are holding back.

Strapped with dealing with the changeover to digital TV, most local broadcasters are not even moving on interactive TV yet, said Screamingly's Davis. "Most of the local affiliates are so overwhelmed with figuring out what digital TV is, that they are not doing anything with enhancements," he said.

However, perhaps the biggest wallflowers are the companies that many hope will foot the bill -- advertisers. "The advertisers are very intimidated by this new technology," Davis said, adding that more than anything else, such hesitation could slow interactive TV.

Yet, there is hope. "As intimidated as they may be, they always ask for another meeting, because they don't want to be left behind."


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