Many television programmers have concluded that Internet content is simply too dense for most TV viewers. While channel-surfing is a "lean-back" activity, Web-surfing is a "lean-forward" experience requiring intense concentration. But an increasing number of TV executives suggest that such distinctions don't necessarily justify an abandonment of the effort to add some intelligence to the boob tube.A YEAR AGO, TV-media companies tended to enter the interactive entertainment business by creating elaborate Web sites. For the Lifetime cable channel, that meant posting an "interactive" novel complete with sound effects and illustrations. For Paramount, it meant creating a promotional site for its movies, television shows and games.
Today, the media companies are beginning to see much of that content for what it is: boring. But there's another form of interactive programming right around the corner. For lack of a better phrase, call it "interactive TV." Unlike "Internet TV," it involves the overlay of Internet-like data on top of the video images we already watch. There's no need to toggle back and forth between two media.
Say you're watching the Super Bowl and you want updated statistics on quarterback Brett Favre's performance. You simply click a button on your remote control and the data you select is displayed on screen. The same sort of data is available on the Web, of course, but the twist here is that the information is displayed in a relatively unobtrusive way without ever taking the viewer away from the on-screen action.
Only a handful of programming companies have caught on yet. But the ones that have are moving aggressively. And the results could quickly and permanently change the face of the TV-watching experience. Several regional Fox Sports channels, for instance, have committed to an interactive TV service called ACTV, which displays a wide range of up-to-the-minute statistics of the viewers' choosing. Lifetime officials say they're veering away from Web-only projects in favor of creating interactive data that can run atop the channel's video signals. And ESPN is being heavily courted by a wide range of service providers to create game broadcasts that include personalized statistics.
Whatever the data, it's typically displayed either in a picture-in-picture format or in a shadow screen overlayed atop the moving video pictures.
Technology is one of the main drivers of this new style of programming. For instance, unlike its Internet-TV predecessor, the new version of WebTV (called WebTV Plus) comes equipped with a wide range of interactive-TV capabilities such as picture-in-picture. And the latest generation of cable set-top boxes "the kind for which Tele-Communications Inc. just placed a $4.5 billion order" offer similar functions.
But the possibilities for the content itself are the real catalysts here. In fact, those now-evident possibilities precipitated a wholesale strategy shift at Lifetime.
"This is where it's all going," says Brian Donlon, Lifetime's vice president of sports, new media and public affairs. "We're not a publishing company, we're a video company. So what we started doing is basically dismantling the Web site that was about producing static text, and putting out a service that's basically going to be a video-delivery system that marries Web-like text with the video. We believe in two to four years, there'll be a critical mass for that."
The shift, Donlon notes, isn't an expensive one. In fact, he is simply able to redirect the handful of staffers who have been programming Web pages in HTML to use that same programming language for interactive TV content.
To be sure, there may well be plenty of demand for traditional Internet services over the television, especially given how cheap Internet-TV appliances are versus computers. E-mail alone could help drive that budding business segment.
But already there's evidence that audiences want more from their basic television viewing as well. CNBC's popular stock ticker is one prominent example of how broadcasters are filling more and more of the TV screen with data. (CNBC and MSNBC share content, and parent NBC is a partner with Microsoft in MSNBC.) And VH1's new "Pop-up Video" programs, which flash an endless stream of trivia about the performing musicians, have nearly doubled the channel's ratings in some markets.
Despite its growing favor, "interactive TV" has something of an image problem "mainly because it's often confused with "Internet TV.'"
"These are really differentiated solutions," says Jan Steenkamp, chief executive of OpenTV, which is backed in part by Sun Microsystems.
While watching a sports event on OpenTV, viewers can activate a transparent menu. From there, using a remote control, they can retrieve biographical information on the players, get real-time statistics or purchase team merchandise. Similarly, while watching the "Leeza" talk show, viewers may click a button to find out what type of blazer guest star Julia Roberts is wearing. A couple more clicks, and they can actually purchase such a blazer.
"Variable density" is the phrase Larry Namer uses for giving TV viewers the choice either to "veg out" on traditional TV or to drill down for extra information. Namer, a cable-TV veteran and now president of consulting firm Comspan Communications, advises entertainment and technology companies on interactive TV initiatives, and he says the interest in such hybrid programming has increased exponentially in just two years.
"I've been saying for years that the [television] audience will continue to erode if we don't start providing variable density experiences," Namer says. "Two years ago, people just looked at me, saying, 'whoa, the '60s were tough on this guy.' "