Right from the start, Canal Plus had a personality all its own. "I always know in a meeting exactly which people are from Canal Plus-the way they dress, the colors they wear, their behavior," said one Paris-based TV executive.
From that environment has come a series of interactive-television applications that are at least one year, if not two, ahead of anything currently available in the United States.
"Every single operator in the U.S. is concentrating on EPGs [electronic programming guides]," noted Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. But a stroll through the Paris facilities of Canal Plus's French direct-to-home satellite platform, CanalSatellite, shows the European pay TV company has gone miles beyond that.
Picture a television screen divided into 12 separate rectangles, each with a real-time, full motion view of exactly what's playing on a given channel, very much like a bank of TV monitors.
Scrolling horizontally gives viewers a look at 60 channels in total. Click on any one of the "monitors" to get that particular channel's audio track. Press the "OK" button on the remote control to go to the channel itself.
Within the "Mosaic" are a handful of separate channel groupings, including one for traditional channels, one for shopping channels, another for audio programming and one devoted to video games. One channel functions as both a barker channel and a source of information on all the different remote-control functions.
Mosaic isn't an electronic program guide, explained Arthur Orduna, Canal Plus U.S. Technologies' senior vice president of marketing, because it only gives real-time images and listings information without getting into the future schedule.
Canal Plus considers the Mosaic so key to its success that it is prominently featured in its promotional material across Europe. And officials there say it's a key reason why some 85 percent of its entire subscriber base uses interactive features on a regular basis.
"We're building a universe surrounding all the different channels," explained Alexandre Michelin, executive vice president of programming for CanalSatellite.
All told, Canal Plus DTH platforms comprise some 15.2 million subscriptions-although it should be noted that that number includes both basic DTH and premium-channel subscribers.
Canal Plus doesn't break out its basic subscribers, which makes the picture somewhat murky. However, sources there said the French platform currently has some 1.5 million DTH subscribers to date. And that's about half a million customers ahead of its DTH competitor Television Par Satellite (TPS), according to figures from the Cahners In-Stat Group.
Regardless of the actual numbers, every single Canal Plus DTH subscriber across Europe is capable of using interactive functions. And they all have the same remote control.
"The remote control is really the silver bullet to the whole operation," said Jimmy Schaeffler, a subscription TV analyst who is chairman and CEO of California-based consultancy The Carmel Group. "It's very user friendly, very common sense and very educational."
Schaeffler recently saw a demonstration of the interactive functions of several European DTH platforms, including British Sky Broadcasting, while visiting the Luxembourg facilities of the satellite company SES Astra recently.
Out of six, the Canal Plus system "was the most impressive," he said, "because [its functionality] made a lot of sense." Putting himself in the mind of the average consumer, "It didn't scare me, and when I did common-sense things, I got common-sense responses."
But not everyone feels that way. "From my point of view, I think that up until recently, Canal Plus and CanalSatellite haven't done such a good job with interactive services," says Reineke Reitsma, an Amsterdam-based analyst at Forrester Research who is a consumer specialist. She analyzed the European interactive TV scene in a report published last February, and said her present opinion is based on research done just before that time.
Unlike services such as BSkyB's Open bouquet in the U.K., Reitsma said, Canal Plus subscribers can't use a keyboard for easy electronic-mail communication.
But that situation is about to change, as Canal Plus starts rolling out more sophisticated set top boxes in the next month or two. They will have not only a keyboard, but personal video recorder functionality and access to Vivendi's "Vizzavi" portal.
One of Michelin's latest interactive ventures is a horse-betting channel called Equidia, which relaunched in April with movies, documentaries, debates-and, most importantly, races.
"We had hoped to have 20,000 [customer-betting] accounts open by the end of this year, but we had them in two months," he said.
On average, some 1 million French francs ($760,000) is bet on Equidia each day-and the company has found that the majority of users are newcomers to the horse-racing world.
Customers place their bets by slipping a credit card in the set-top box. Canal Plus STBs are unique in that they have two slots, one for a subscription smart card, and another for credit cards, used for any number of different electronic-commerce transactions.
While Canal Plus has interactive banking channels, weather channels and informational channels, it's in the sports genre that it seems to be mining interactivity the most. For example, when the premium, namesake Canal Plus channel televises a live sporting event, it gives latecomers a bit of a break. Viewers can click to a split screen. One screen shows the game live, while the other provides a recap with up-to-the minute highlights.
That function also is used in Canal Plus's flagship two-hour talk show,
Nulle Part Ailleurs
(No Where Else). The show includes a five-minute puppet segment that satirizes politicians and other celebrities. Those who tune in too late can rerun the puppet show, via the same split-screen function.
Another unique function, called Zapfoot, is used within Canal Plus's pay-per-view offerings. During soccer season, Canal Plus televises six live games simultaneously each week, and packages them so it's almost as attractive for a subscriber to pay for all of the contests, instead of just one.
Those who take the six-game package are prompted on screen when action is impending on another channel. If they switch, the screen offers an icon allowing for an easy switch back to the subscriber's "favorite" game.
Also on offer are special functions tied to the Eurosport channel that aren't available on competing platforms. The channel, which is partially owned by Canal Plus, features two icons that allow viewers to either access a shopping boutique or call up statistical information.
Some of the interactive functions require extra bandwidth-such as the soccer game recaps and the Mosaic-but they don't involve a hard disk embedded in the set-top box.
The return path for some of the interactive services is through standard telephone lines, but that mostly involves the transactional services and video games in which two subscribers in different parts of the country are playing against each other.
All told, Michelin and crew have launched 10 new channels on CanalSatellite over the last year, many of which have interactive capabilities. While he says he doesn't know how many he'll add in 2001, "many of the new channels that are going to come are linked to Internet portals that want a TV window. We've added four like that already."