ITV Survivor ICTV Pitches Cable Anew

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Reinvention, an oft-used tactic in politics, is gaining traction in the interactive-TV space. ICTV, a veteran of the interactive TV, Internet on the TV and thin-client/thick-client wars, is back pitching cable operators a new batch of tightly focused products.

Using its HeadendWare software, ICTV is showcasing how cable operators can better merchandise VOD, and offer games, local content and online customer-service support on their TVs via low-end set-tops.

"We're trying to build on what customers are already doing," said Ed Forman, ICTV's senior vice president of marketing. "They can boost VOD revenue through improved menuing and merchandising, offer games and improve customer service by putting online support on TV."

ICTV's mere continued existence might surprise some people. But it secured $80 million in funding three years ago, just before the Internet bubble collapsed. And its well-heeled investors — Liberty Media, TV Guide and Lauder Partners — have the wherewithal to sustain the business through the down times.

The new course tries to address the realities of a thin-client set-top. "Headend Ware is software implementation," said Forman. "It enables any [set-top] TB to support interactive programming, and two-way real-time interactivity."

Basically, ICTV has taking the applications many envisioned for the DCT 5000 STB and kept them alive by transferring them to the headend. The keystrokes go from the remote to the headend, are processed there, then returned to the home.

ICTV takes up only 75 kilobits of space on the set-top. "It initiates the session, tunes the channel, and packetizes remote control click," Forman said. All the work is done at the headend, or the server where content applications are stored. "Content can come from any web server," he said.

"We don't do application development work," Forman said. For instance, ICTV has been working with Hollywood Media Corp. to develop a TV version of its Internet movie-theater ticket application.

"HeadendWare combines streaming video with database access and e-commerce transactions in a thin-box scenario," said Eric Illowsky, president, development division of HMC.

ICTV also is working with Gist TV, which has an application that helps consumers sift through hundreds of movies on VOD platforms.

"We can integrate VOD merchandising from a Web page plus video from a video server" inside the cable system, Forman said.

Forman said Disney Blast approached ICTV about porting their online-games package of content to the TV. And the company also is working with Buzztime Entertainment.

"We're looking at IP apps on the TV," Forman said. He listed such applications as a personalized music jukebox, photo viewing and ordering and e-mail.

ICTV also is pitching operators on taking their online customer-support screens and porting them onto the imbedded base of 20 million digital set-tops deployed. With a click of the remote, consumers could see their bills, get answers to frequently asked questions and order new levels of service by using the Web-based services cable operators have already created.

All this content can flow from servers inside or outside a cable operators' headend, through ICTV's HeadendWare system.

In the headend, each blade in the HeadendWare rack unit can handle 40 subscriber sessions concurrently. Data is sent down the cable plant through the same space used for VOD, since an ICTV app and a VOD app would not be used at the exact same time. HeadendWare applications take up no more than two megahertz, or about one third the size of a normal 6-MHz channel, ICTV said.

"We can direct the output to a node or service area," Forman said. "The 40 sessions can transmit over 2-MHz channel capacity and can ride inside the VOD channel." So ICTV can serve 120 different homes, concurrently, in one 6-MHz channel. "We scale very well inside the bandwidth available," Forman said.

ICTV said HeadendWare can handle Internet content formats from Microsoft, Real Networks, Apple and also is integrated with Linux and Open TV. Cable hardware integration includes VOD server vendors and set-top suppliers Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Motorola.

ICTV said operators are interested in testing the product in trials. ICTV brings content and applications providers to the table, but it's up to the MSO as to what content and services they want.

The end game would be for operators to launch applications that aid in customer service, or bring in new revenues through VOD, games and local content, ICTV said.

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