To hear ESPN tell it, content providers need to get into the game and help drive interactive TV's deployment. That's one reason why the cable sports outlet has forged a deal with ITV systems provider Liberate Technologies Inc. to develop applications based on ESPN sports content.
The joint project will add enhanced ESPN programming to LiberateTV Platform Compact software, which runs on basic digital boxes, including Motorola Inc.'s DCT-2000. Liberate has been involved in several ITV trials with major MSOs and is in deployment with Insight Communications Co.
"We think MSOs are looking to their content partners — the stronger, branded content partners particularly — so that they move forward with their interactive television," said ESPN vice president of broadband and ITV sales Manish Jha. "We think that we can play a very important leadership role there."
This isn't ESPN's first foray into interactive TV. The sports channel started by launching the ESPN Today virtual channel and a one-page ESPN Extra interactive page, via Wink Communications Inc., on DirecTV Inc.'s satellite service.
Banking on more ample bandwidth — particularly in the return path — the Liberate deal will effectively supersize the cable version of ESPN Today, integrating the virtual channel with video-on-demand features. Similarly, the ESPN Extra page will be expanded to include more video clips and analyst commentary.
The idea is to create an even more interactive TV environment to lure in more cable customers, Jha said.
"We're trying to create really compelling experiences that integrate the interactivity of the Web and the emotional power of television with full audio and video, in an on-demand kind of environment," he said. "We think it is applications like these that can really drive digital cable beyond the folks who subscribe to it for more channels and the interactive guide and so on.
"We think that content brands such as ESPN need to innovate and really try to do compelling consumer applications on the digital cable platforms," Jha added.
The first such project will be with Insight, and over time, the initiative will widen to include other yet-to-be-named MSOs. ESPN is expected to launch its ESPN Today channel on Cablevision Systems Corp.'s home-grown ITV platform.
The fact that ESPN interactivity will be seen by a small percentage of U.S. cable subscribers at this point doesn't discourage the network, Jha said.
"I'm not concerned about the pace of interactive television deployments — whether it is Liberate's or the industry's in general, at this time — because I think that I recognize, as I hope others do, that these are very sophisticated, complicated things technically to execute on, and it does take time," he said.
"But as Insight has demonstrated, and as some of the other cable operators either have or will demonstrate as well, once deployed interactive television services represent valuable consumer propositions that enhance the value of digital cable and enhance their stickiness and penetration."
ORIGINAL DOOR OPENS
ESPN Today's VOD format will also open the door for original content that might not appear in the sports channel's regular program lineup. For example, ESPN has already launched EXPN, its homegrown action-sports outlet developed around the X Games.
That will result in more content than can be aired on the ESPN television channels, so "we think the video-on-demand vehicle is a perfect environment for the passionate X Games fans, who also happen to be early adopters of new technology," Jha said. "So we think the smart play is to have increasing amounts [of] marquee, time-shifted and original content available in the video-on-demand market."
That content could range from long-form programs, such as sporting events, to shorter clips that offer analysis.
So far, there are no set launch dates for ESPN interactive content on the Liberate platform, but it will likely reach TV screens by the end of the year.
"We need to continue to work as an industry — content companies, strong brands, distribution companies, cable companies and technology companies in partnership — so that we can realize the value and help justify the investment the cable industry has made in a lot of these technologies," Jha said.