Cable Show 2010: Operators Eye 25 Million EBIF Homes This Year

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coverage of the Cable Show 2010 from Multichannel News and B&C

Cable operators are aiming to enable the industry's EBIF interactive TV standard for around 25 million subscribers by the end of 2010 -- but the spec still has quirks that content owners are wrestling with.

Programmers need to start creating applications and experimenting now, in anticipation of a national EBIF footprint, said Mark Hess, Comcast's senior vice president of advanced business and technology development, speaking on a panel here at the Cable Show.

"If you're a content provider sitting there saying, ‘I wonder if it's going to happen this time'... Look, I have it in 12.8 million homes," Hess said. "There will be probably 25 million homes industry-wide by the end of the year. You have to get on this now."

Comcast expects to reach nearly 19 million digital cable households this year with EBIF, and Time Warner Cable chief technology officer Mike LaJoie on Tuesday said the MSO will have 6 million subscriber homes ready for the spec in 2010. The Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format spec is maintained by CableLabs.

Interactivity on a broad scale gives programmers the ability to differentiate a live TV broadcast from the on-demand or time-shifted version, said Joan Gillman, president of Time Warner Cable's media sales group.

"The earlier you start with [interactive TV] the better your edge over your competitors," she said. "Don't try it once and say it didn't work for you."

But other executives on the panel -- "EBIF Nation: The How, When and Where of a New Advertising Platform" -- said the promise of the interactive platform is not quite there yet.

"The EBIF standard sounds great... then I got introduced to two dirty little words called ‘user agent,'" Michael Aaronson, NBC Universal's vice president of digital distribution said.

The EBIF user agent is the code that resides in a set-top box to receive "triggers," display on-screen graphics and return a viewer's responses. But there are variations among different user agents that have been deployed by different MSOs.

"It's not really 'build it once and deploy everywhere,' so it's tough," Aaronson said. "We're not quite at the place where we can light up interactivity nationwide."

Canoe Ventures chief technology officer Arthur Orduña said the fact that there are some issues with EBIF user agents "is actually a very good sign," because it shows that multiple vendors are writing to the same spec -- instead of the industry being beholden to one vendor's proprietary technology.

"This is early days," Orduña conceded. "We are trying to reconcile different user agents that are written to a spec. You have to test them with different applications, and that's a critical role that CableLabs is playing for us."

For Canoe's initial interactive advertising product, a request-for-information feature that will let subscribers request coupons, product samples or info from an advertiser, the company is using a template to ensure the EBIF app looks and behaves the same way across all MSOs, Orduña noted. Canoe is owned by the six largest U.S. cable operators.

Gillman, meanwhile, said TWC's New York City system has been up and running with EBIF for six months. Interactive ad campaigns executed in the Big Apple include those for Chase Manhattan and a tune-in spot on ABC for the Academy Awards to measure engagement prior to the telecast. The operator has also used EBIF to offer impulse upgrades, provide customer billing information, and deliver voting and polling features on the NY1 news channel.

To Aaronson, though, creating interactive features that accompany programming is often more trouble than it's worth. For the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, NBCU had some form of interactivity for 45 million homes -- but that effort took several months, and involved at least half a dozen development projects.

"There's a disconnect between the level of effort required to put stuff out today and the return," Aaronson said. "The market has got to mature more."

The panel was moderated by Don Dulchinos, CableLabs senior vice president of advanced platforms.

Dulchinos, illustrating the momentum behind EBIF, said there were 22 different booths at the Cable Show with different interactive applications, not counting about a dozen in the CableNET exhibit and the ones Time Warner Cable is showing in the My World booth.

Earlier this week, a consortium of cable group and companies -- led by Canoe -- announced a campaign to brand EBIF interactive features as "SelecTV." The name and logo were created by brand-consulting firm Siegel+Gale, which also came up with "tru2way."

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