Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Two-way stretch

Two-way stretch

Your viewers will soon be glued to the box - but they won't be watching any programmes. Rob Buckley wonders how interactive television is going to come up with any content beyond games and banking.

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Nevertheless, interactive content is being sought out using both carrot and stick. NTL ceo Barclay Knapp wants producers to help him produce “enteractivity.” If they don't, they will soon lose their audiences to internet companies, he believes. And ITV's Network Centre is making it clear that programme pitches that include an interactive element will receive preferential treatment. In all likelihood, it will be the broadcasters that arrange interactive content for their programming, rather than producers,since only economy of scale will make it viable.

Games are likely to be the most popular form of interactivity. On Digital already has a games channel, and Marre is keen to promote games and e-mail over anything else interactivity has to offer (perhaps because of the bandwidth required by anything else -something On Digital doesn't have).

Mark Rock of Static, a design company that's focussing on interactive TV, explains. “It costs a lot to set up a good interactive site - one or two million. Before anyone does that, they're going to want to dip their toe in the water first.” Games are easy to repackage, can work even on the reduced computing capacity of set-top boxes, and are cheap to create. And players of games spend a long time looking at the screen and any banner advertising that goes on them . You can even lure players to try games with the promise ofe-commerce vouchers (similar to air miles) if they play for long enough.

Commercials have the potential to change the most through interactivity. A 30-second commercial could have an accompanying 30-second game for the viewer to play concurrently. But it doesn't stop there. Rock points out the problems: “Consider what happens when the first commercial of a break comes on and it has interactive content.

”The viewer presses the i-button and it takes them to a site where they can fmd out about the product, enter a competition, play a game, and then buy the product, all using their remote . But during that time, they 're not watching the other ads and maybe not even the programme they were watching. Immediately, the rate-card is out the window.“ Sky's response has been to declare that only the last ad in a break would be interactive, so that programming not ads bears the brunt.

What's likely to happen, says Rock (it's an opinion backed by Andy Crosley of NTL), is a publishing model coming to TV. Magazines need a far smaller readership than programmes to survive, because ads reach the precise demographics required by advertisers. An interactive magazine (from music mag Q, already on Cable & Wireless, down to even local newspapers, Crosley hopes) can draw advertisers away from the blunderbuss of 30 seconds in the middle of Coronation Street.

But there's another barrier to small players in the market. The three different platforms all use different languages for their sites. The web took years to take off and it had only one language; what would have happened if anyone who wanted to create their own website had had to create it three times in three completely different ways?

Eunite's Sheffield says that if you already have a website, it'll be hard to convert it to an interactive site, but if you start from scratch, it shouldn't be too difficult (even easier if you use his company). Ironically, Sky's oxymoronically-titled Open platform is the hardest to write for, not least because of the charge levied on developers who want to obtain specifications for creating sites on its system.

The result is likely to be a two-tier service where big-name channels with the big-name programmes will be the only ones able to afford the best interactive content. Everyone else, apart from a few sharp innovators, will have the interactive status of web home pages.

So far from being the next big thing, unless a clear standard emerges from the platform wars and some allowance is made for the less profitable branches of television, it might well become just the next Teletext.

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