Interactive TV: You Say You Want It When?

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I once owned a run-down Toyota that I swore was cursed. One night I drove home, switched off the car's ignition and pulled out the key-and the engine kept running. When I switched off the headlights, the engine stopped.

My local auto shop, which made steady income from the car's breakdowns, discovered that mice were living under the hood and gnawing on the electrical wires, causing bizarre short circuits.

A mechanic took pity on me and offered to blow up the car so I could collect the insurance money. I politely declined, partly for the good of the mice.

The repair shop had a sign on the wall that showed a bunch of people laughing. It read, "You Want It When
?" Ha ha.

I think about that sign whenever I hear that interactive-TV services and other technological wonders are coming just around the corner. Later, when you remind providers that their promised delivery date is due, they look at you as if to say, "You want it when?"

The "when?" question gets asked a lot and is seldom answered with any reliability. A cable company or interactive-TV provider announces new services and the press asks, "when?" Programmers, advertisers, investors and consumers hear of these coming marvels and ask, "when?"

And it always takes longer than anyone expects. I have found this to be as much of a universal truth as surely as I could count on that Toyota breaking down.

As ITV experiences a rebirth, providers face a dilemma in the way they announce its arrival. If the technology is depicted as imminent-and hyped as the Second Coming-everyone's disappointed if it doesn't show up the next morning and walk on water. Many cable and telephone companies fell into this trap with ITV announcements in the mid-1990s.

If, on the other hand, there's not enough promotion or a target date, the service may not be regarded seriously. The key, as many marketers and public relations managers have found, is in the art of managing expectations.

So it was that top cable executives-including John Malone, Barry Diller, Dan Somers and Michael Willner-spent a recent Western Cable Show general session heralding ITV but asking for something rarely requested in the past: patience.

While their call for patience was aimed foremost at the investment community, which has recently decimated these executives' stocks, their comments also reflect important new thinking about how interactive TV should be positioned publicly.

"We're in an early period of a radical revolution," said Diller, chairman and CEO of USA Networks. But, he cautioned, it's a revolution with a life span of about 10 years in order to take full effect.

Rather than introducing ITV services from on high, with a flourish of trumpets and artificial deadlines, some marketers now favor a more low-key approach, in which ITV is introduced as a more seamless part of expanded cable service.

In this way, providers won't get burned if they miss deadlines and consumers will perceive ITV correctly, as a significant improvement in television rather than as some new, foreign service. According to this school of thought, ITV marketing should avoid industry terms like interactive TV or video-on-demand and instead promote what consumers actually can do, such as gain instant access to weather reports or movies.

Diller dismissed the notion of a "killer app" as an "antiquated" idea. ITV is a radical change, he said, but a seamless one that we'll eventually take for granted. It simply will become a habit to push a button on a remote to, say, find out who's in a movie and when it was made, he explained.

Moderator Ken Auletta, a staff writer at The New Yorker, asked the inevitable question: "When will interactive TV become a common experience?"

Willner, CEO of Insight Communications Co. Inc., said ITV already is being practiced in places like his company's Rockford, Ill., system. He said 95 percent of Insight subscribers will have access to interactivity by year-end.

Dan Somers, CEO of AT&T Broadband-who's been hearing the "when?" question an awful lot these days-said interactivity is "sneaking up." In defending his company's performance, he said each of AT&T Broadband's services are growing by 1 percent per month.

Patience is a virtue, but many companies in the ITV food chain depend on the timetable of a single technology, like advanced digital set-tops, before they can eat. And their hungry investors have little patience.

Malone, chairman of Liberty Media, said cable always has provided "deferred gratification" and "the [stock] market doesn't understand deferred gratification. It works on a 90-day cycle." Those who've stuck with cable have enjoyed tremendous wealth, he said.

Asked what the biggest issue is facing cable, Diller quickly replied, "Getting it out there." Once it is, we'll never have to hear the "when?" question again.

You want your digital dilemma resolved
when ? Contact digital media analyst Craig Leddy at Leddycolumn@aol.com.

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