NAB Theme: ITV Content To Break 'Holding Pattern'

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Las Vegas— As interactive television creeps slowly on to U.S. TV screens, it's no secret that the technology is perceived as more hype than reality.

At last week's National Association of Broadcasters convention here, participants focused on the reasons why ITV has gotten off the blocks so slowly.

Two reasons behind the "perpetual holding pattern" are a lack of content and an absence of standards, said Joel Hassell, CEO of Intellocity USA Inc., a subsidiary of ACTV Inc. To bridge the latter gap, Intellocity — which boasts AT&T Broadband as a customer — builds tools designed to handle myriad specifications.

But it's content, not technology, that will drive ITV, added Marlin Davis, chairman and CEO of ITV content house Screamingly Different Entertainment.

"Technology doesn't matter when you're a content producer," he said, noting that producers aren't normally asked what film stock they used for a particular movie.

"[The success of ITV] is a matter of businesses models and content that will engage viewers," Davis said. "Technology has always been an odd companion to the entertainment industry."

Microsoft TV vice president of marketing and sales Alan Yates had a different take on why ITV always seems to be on a horizon that hasn't been reached. There's no need to wait for ITV, he said, because product is already shipping.

"We think ITV's imminent and it's coming," said Yates.

Microsoft's rollout of UltimateTV underscores that position, according to Yates.

"The vision is the easy part, but it's more difficult to reach that vision," he said. "It's a step-by-step process."

For example, Yates noted that America Online Inc. or even dishwashing machine manufacturers didn't become profitable overnight in their early days of development and deployment.

SHIELDING STREAMS

Though ITV and video delivered via Internet-protocol are top-of-mind for broadcasters, the practice of protecting that content has also become a larger issue.

One company exploring that area is startup firm Aerocast Inc., which recently completed its first technical streaming trial in Seattle with Millennium Digital Media.

Aerocast has teamed with part owner Motorola Broadband Communications Sector to develop a digital rights-management system. Slated for initial deployment later this year, the DRM system will be designed to protect copyrighted video that flows across the Internet.

But protection will come at a price: Aerocast will fund several Motorola Broadband engineers to complete the project. Their technical help will run in "excess of seven figures," Aerocast president Dario Santana said.

Santana said the investment will be well worth it because "content is the product itself and that's what you have to protect. If a service provider wants to add valuable content, they'll want to protect it, as well."

Looking ahead, Aerocast will stage another trial with a top-eight U.S. MSO. The phased approach of that test will start with 15 to 20 cable customers, and then grow to about 1,000 subscribers, Santana said.

DotTV Corp. also was on hand, attempting to drum up businesses for its .tv top-level domain (TLD), which it offers exclusively via a deal with the tiny island nation of Tuvalu. Its hope is that television stations and other programmers will want the .tv TLD for sites that offer streamed video and other interactive features.

Paxson Communications Corp. and KNBC in Los Angeles already have bought and built sites based on the .tv TLD. A company official said other programmers such as the British Broadcasting Corp., Home Box Office and Turner Broadcasting System Inc. also have purchased .tv TLDs for future use.

Though DotTV charges a small, $50 annual registration fee for most designations, the more-generic premium sites — such as free.tv, china.tv and net.tv — run about $100,000 each. The company has registered more than 350,000 names in less than a year.

Not to worry, though: A hefty portion of the profits have been earmarked for a good cause. Tuvalu, which owns the rights to the .tv TLD and has a 15 percent stake in DotTV, said it will dog-ear a minimum of $4 million of its earnings over the next 10 years to improve the nation's roads, install electricity on its outer islands and add further enhancements.

Tuvalu needs to milk what it can from what is perhaps its only natural resource. Its eight islands represent less than 10,000 square miles of dry land, none of it able to support permanent crops or pastures.

From the where-are-they-now-file, beleaguered satellite-telephone provider Iridium Satellite LLC was also present at this year's NAB, touting a fresher strategy.

Iridium's constellation of 66 low-earth satellites, once in danger of frying in the atmosphere after the company filed for bankruptcy in 1999, launched a bundle of phone, voice and paging services on March 30.

Instead of tackling the consumer cellular-phone market, Iridium is now targeting companies that operate in remote locations.

Though Iridium has a new plan, its new service and equipment remains rather expensive. Its newest line of global communications devices carries a hefty price tag of between $1,300 and $1,500 per unit. On top of that, calls are less than $1 per minute "most of the time," a company official said.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that the government is one of Iridium's customers. The U.S. Department of Defense has bought a license from Iridium for 20,000 subscriber units, an Iridium official said.

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