Both The Walt Disney Co. and AOL Time Warner Inc. cited potential interactive-television revenue as one reason for shelling out a combined $4.6 billion for National Basketball Association rights through 2008, but it's still not clear how ITV will help foot the bill.
Officials at AOL's Turner Sports and Disney's ESPN said last week that they haven't formed definitive plans for any new ITV services to complement their NBA telecasts.
If ESPN and TNT do move forward with interactive NBA programming, ITV vendors such as ACTV Inc. and Wink Communications Inc. could get a boost. But if the networks decide to develop ITV programming for the games in-house — as ESPN has done with its "Enhanced TV" application for National Football League games — ITV vendors could be shut out of the NBA market.
ACTV sued ESPN, ABC and parent Disney last January, arguing that the company's Enhanced TV product infringes on its patents.
ESPN spokeswoman Rosa Gatti said the company hasn't decided whether it'll develop interactive applications for NBA telecasts on its own, or if it will partner with vendors.
"Certainly we continue to grow our technical expertise, but we also work with middleware providers where and when it makes sense," Gatti added.
Last year, ESPN partnered with Wink to launch the ESPN Today virtual channel on DirecTV Inc.'s satellite platform.
As part of the agreement, ESPN obtained the rights to distribute on-demand NBA games one day after the contests are played. At press time, ESPN officials said the network was still evaluating whether it would distribute the VOD games to cable operators on its own, or sublicense them to VOD aggregators such as In Demand or Intertainer Inc.
Earlier this month, TNT and TBS Superstation launched an interactive game with soft- drink brand Sprite that allows basketball viewers to play a fantasy game on NBA.com.
Turner Sports spokesman Jeff Pomeroy said the company plans to continue "NBA Fantasy Live on TBS and TNT" under the new NBA contract, but that it hasn't yet put together plans to offer viewers any other interactive programming synchronized with its NBA telecasts.