Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of DirecTV, and the increasing likelihood that the company could launch interactive applications later this year, has lit a fire under many cable MSOs.
While the first iteration of ITV crashed and burned years ago, MSOs are now looking at a wide range of interactive applications, and ways to deliver that interactivity, to combat what many believe DirecTV will offer.
That’s good news for GoldPocket Interactive, a leader in the two-screen, interactive space, which believes its experience with content providers and advertisers — along with its production tools and distribution systems — could help MSOs launch viable interactive applications.
“The market is about to take off,” predicts Scott Newnam, president of GPI.
Newnam envisions that by year’s end, more cable operators will launch a suite of interactive applications. One item on the agenda is parlor games inside virtual channels, much like what Charter Communications Inc. has done with Digeo and what Cablevision Systems Corp. has launched, Newnam says.
A second area involves the enhanced TV applications GPI has created for the two-screen experience. The “write once” production tool software GPI has will enable programmers to port the enhanced TV, two-screen experience over to the set-top environment with a click of a mouse, saving valuable hours of development time.
Those applications would include trivia questions, polling and added program information.
A third area could be enhanced video. CNN, for instance, could send six separate video signals to the home — such as feeds for world news, national news, sports, weather, entertainment and financial. It’s exactly what Murdoch is looking to do with Fox News, and very similar to what he’s done in England with British Sky Broadcasting plc. That direct-to-home platform also offers consumers numerous camera angles for several sporting events, another service that DirecTV will probably offer here.
Newnam points out that GPI has extensive experience in some of these areas. Over the past few years, GPI has produced 15,000 hours of enhanced two-screen interactivity. It is working with 15 networks to produce 200 hours each week of interactive content.
That content ranges from game shows to reality programming to sports. GPI’s customers have included CBS, Fox, NBC, GSN, A&E, The History Channel, Spike TV, Speed Channel, PBS, AMC, CNN, Bravo, Fuse and Lifetime. TV shows include CSI: Miami, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Kenny vs. Spenny, NFL Sunday Ticket, Boys Toys and Batman.
USING DIFFERENT PLATFORMS
Here’s how it works. A programmer sends GoldPocket an episode of a series, to which GoldPocket adds interactivity. It takes a GoldPocket programmer about five days to create an ITV template for the show.
Using production tools that GPI purchased from WatchPoint, the company can create ITV templates in various platforms. Today, those platforms include the Internet, Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Open TV and two wireless platforms. Any other platforms, such as Motorola, can be added into the WatchPoint software, GPI says.
Once a template has been created for a program, it takes GPI programmers four to five hours to complete an episode of, say, Lingo or Survivor. GPI will add trivia questions, polling questions or extra information, depending on the nature of the content.
The nascent two-screen business is gaining some traction. The average two-screen experience lasts 41 minutes, GPI says. What’s more, those content providers are generating interactive ad revenue, Newnam said. More than 80 advertisers spent an estimated $40 million in interactive ads in 2003. The larger advertisers include American Express, Best Buy, Burger King, Kraft, Mars, Nestle, Orbitz, Pizza Hut, Radio Shack, Sony PlayStation and Volvo.
The point with two-screen interactivity is that programmers are already producing for the platform and generating revenue from it, Newnam says. Operators that want interactive programming won’t have to face a learning curve for many programmers, since many of those programmers are already there. There’s also a revenue stream already attached to it, Newnam says.
So how would this work with existing cable systems? Based on conversations with MSOs, Newnam believes various levels of interactivity could be launched by cable operators today, even on legacy 2000 series set-tops.
GPI’s InFuse software, or another company’s software, for that matter, could sit in a server in a headend. Interactive content would be sent through the system from a broadcast carousel.
One key question is whether the interactive information is sent in-band or out-of-band. Newnam says that the Motorola DCT-2000 cannot handle extra in-band content. Scientific-Atlanta’s 2000 series could handle some low-level interactive apps, such as polling or parlor games. The higher level set-tops — such as the DCT 6200 series, or the S-A 3250, 4250 or 8000 series — could handle games, polling, even extra video, such as multiple screens of CNN.
LOCAL AD POSSIBILITIES
Operators could send the interactive content through out-of-band channels, if channel capacity exists. That could be asking a lot in a world where HDTV channels have been launched, consuming valuable bandwidth. But Newnam would argue that operators may want to look at 18 or 30 MHz for ITV apps, more so than the next batch of HDTV channels, given the much wider base of digital set-tops compared to HDTV STBs.
MSOs have tools to conserve bandwidth, on the fly, to provide space for interactive apps. And not all interactive apps need extra space all the time. (Long term, of course, the all-digital network would obviate the need to scrounge for 30 MHz of bandwidth for ITV applications.)
A 256 QAM cable system could put 36 Megabits of data into a six MHz stream. GPI engineers estimate that a cable operator could put a combination of dozens of games or synchronized programming or several camera angles from a particular network in a single 6 MHz stream.
The key, Newnam says, is making sure things are done in real time. Allowing consumers to vote on American Idol requires a low-latency network. GPI has leased a nationwide network, and its Event Matrix system allows for instantaneous polling and tabulation on the two-screen experience.