ITV Via IP Networks? Creators Need STB Help

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Talk about a complex vision of what we'll see on interactive TV and how we'll see it: On the one hand, David Beddow-a top Malone henchman-espouses a delivery network in which Internet protocol becomes the predominant distribution vehicle. That viewpoint is echoed by Intertainer's Jonathan Taplin, once a cable-network devotee.

Meanwhile, one-dozen creative producers of interactive programming-often demonstrating their disinterest in distribution technology-offer a stunning showcase of content for the new interactive platforms.

Such was the dichotomy at this month's third annual American Film Institute-Intel Enhanced TV Workshop in Hollywood.

The programming samples-much of it underwritten by Intel-were tenfold better than the rudimentary versions shown at this invitation-only event last year. Although many of the programs still carried the Web-centric mind-set of previous efforts, there was a new burst of creativity and technical proficiency, moving beyond mere enhancements of narrowband content.

This year's sample indicate that producers appreciate and are learning to exploit the value of convergence programming-interactivity available via PC and TV. That alone fuels Beddow's contention that IP represents the future for this emerging medium.

Beddow is chairman of Liberty Livewire, a company that has rolled up extensive postproduction facilities on the assumption that these video and film capabilities will play a major role in broadband service, especially when blended with hosting and serving capacity.

Beddow-formerly vice president of Liberty Media and executive vice president of AT & T Broadband, among other cable and satellite positions-emphatically foresees a structure in which Web sites are synchronized with TV programs. It's a world of supplementary services integrated through a common network.

It sounds like a vision backed by connections that can make it happen. It also helps to have advertising and entertainment clients in common, along with producers who can be encouraged to push into the enhanced-TV motif.

Meanwhile, the content showcased at the AFI workshop proved that there is still plenty of confusion about the technology of ITV production. To many participants, it was comforting to learn that they are not alone in their uncertainties about the strategy or platform to adopt.

Repeatedly, producers voiced apprehension about committing to a specific technology just yet. The Advanced Television Forum format (successor of the Intel-run Advanced Television Enhancement Forum) remains the most widely embraced setup, but many producers are already pushing the limits of that structure, which itself still faces international standards endorsement. Meanwhile, Intel officials at the event offered a glimpse of their next batch of tools and technology for enhanced TV.

The programming sampled during the workshop ranged from Showtime's Stargate SG-1 to interactive British Airways commercials to PBS NewsHour enhancements. The notorious Drew Carey episode that featured a Webcast co-ordinated with the ABC broadcast network attracted 650,000 simulstreams, with online viewers seeing viewpoints that complemented the TV show. Lee Hunt offered a sample of a Fox Kids show that includes character icons as a new interactive language.

Like other segments on display, it offered a glimpse of the alternative-and augmented-opportunities to entertain, educate and inform through clever on-screen components.

Showtime's David Preisman, in his Stargate demonstration, presented usage data such as audience demand for simultaneous online chat while they are watching the TV show. He admitted that the network didn't expect online chat to work, but by encouraging such conversations through audio cues in the show itself, chat became an effective and sticky component of the video program.

Meanwhile, an air of reality also hung above the day's enthusiasm about enhanced TV. Executives from Fox, NBC and production companies repeatedly acknowledged the disconnect ITV poses for the conventional-network mind-set.

Not only is the financial formula unclear, but old-media decision-makers simply "don't get it"-a phrase used with repeated acrimony throughout the AFI event. At the very least, this creates a short-term hurdle for ITV producers who want the big networks to green-light interactive projects. More significant, it means that the young audience's appetite for cutting-edge interactivity will be fed by a new variety of programmers.

And this opens the door for alternative delivery and business models, which-like the programming itself-may go beyond the simplistic structures in place today.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen "gets it," but can't always punch the buttons fast enough. He moderated two controversial panels at the AFI-Intel workshop.

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