As broadband connections reach close to 5 million homes-and the first interactive-television applications move beyond the test phase to full-scale deployments-cable programmers are expanding the scope of their broadband content initiatives.
Increasingly, broadband technology is changing how some networks view their scope and mission, and how they go about connecting with viewers.
"We have three content buckets: television, Web sites and interactive TV," said The Weather Channel executive vice president of strategy and development Von Stanley.
TWC's Web site carries some video that's time-shifted from the network, such as the weekend forecast, Stanley said.
"They also produce a bit of their own content," he said. "All that works better with a high-speed connection."
For Stanley, interactive television includes five components: the interactive program guide; video-on-demand; Internet over the TV; information-on-demand or "virtual garden" offerings; and enhanced-TV applications, such as those from Wink Communications Inc.
TWC is working on customized applications in the latter two areas. For instance, the "instant forecast" and "search for forecast" capabilities present on weather.com also are available through Liberate Technologies' interactive TV trial with Cox Communications Inc. in San Diego.
To date, TWC's interactive TV deals have been with middleware providers, although it has signed a deal with AT&T Broadband.
"As the MSOs get to the point of deciding, we'll have our own deal with them," Stanley said.
Most MSOs are relying on middleware providers to bring in content partners for trials. "The best working example is OpenTV [Inc.], with BSkyB [British Sky Broadcasting] Corp. and NDS," Stanley said. In that test, Open TV and NDS handled integration and liaison functions for BSkyB.
Stanley said TWC has been ready to deploy a product with Microsoft Corp. for Motorola Communication Sector's "DCT-5000" set-top box, but software problems have slowed deployment.
"We have developed a product for the 2000 series with Liberate," Stanley added. "It's not quite as robust, but the look is just as good. With this product, you can get radar on demand for any market."
In that scenario, content is stored at a TWC server that has already been installed at most cable system headends for the Technologies' interactive network's local weather updates. "We intend to use that as a multimedia server," Stanley said.
The network has 20,000 discrete weather forecasts from across the country that could be stored in those servers. Viewers can access weather headlines or search for local, regional or national forecasts, he said.
"Cable gives us sufficient bandwidth to be able to do things like radar," Stanley said. "DBS [direct-broadcast satellite] does a nice job, but it has bandwidth constraints."
Despite that limitation, TWC recently launched a virtual interactive channel with DirecTV Inc. Direct-broadcast satellite can store forecasts for only 1,000 cities and can't do radar-on-demand yet, he said.
In addition to Liberate, TWC has deals with Microsoft and Canal Plus S.A. and is talking to Open TV, Stanley said.
In 2001, Stanley is looking to test short-form video, using video-on-demand, and to redesign TWC's interactive product based on what's learned in field trials.
"We'll try to be more innovative with content and design," Stanley said. Although both computer and TV designers are in this space, Stanley believes "the TV-centric people are going to come out ahead on this thing. People expect video from TV."
The Cartoon Network audience is another audience tailor-made for interactivity and TV/PC convergence.
"We're testing different concepts with the TV and PC," said Jim Samples, general manager of Cartoon Network Online. "In our research, 40 percent of Cartoon Network online users surf and watch TV at the same time."
This summer, the network premiered
Prickles, a TV program tied in to animated Macromedia Inc. "Flash"-enabled content on Cartoon's Web site. Cartoon told viewers to go to the Web site at a specific time during the program to view the Flash sequence, and got a strong spike in Web traffic without any loss of TV ratings, Samples said.
In September, Cartoon premiered
The Intruder, a five-part on-air series tied in to separate content on the Web site. The gambit produced 25 million page views during a six-day period-a Cartoon record, Samples said.
Cartoon also is working with America Online Inc.'s AOL TV on several projects. The ITV service sports a
page, from which viewers can request an episode of the series. Viewers can tune in later in the week to see which episode tallied the most votes.
Cartoon also is working on adding interactivity to its six-show "Cartoon Cartoon Friday" program block. Viewers would be able to request programs they want to see, send characters via electronic mail and link to individual shows' home pages.
Samples said AOL TV provides a template and Cartoon handles most of the creative and production process.
"With AOL TV, it's been highly cooperative," Samples said. "The bigger issue is with the early versions, we don't have all the robust tools."
Kevin Cohen, senior vice president and general manager for interactivity and enhanced TV at Turner Network Sales, said: "We all need to develop the TV sensibility. Everyone has the same goals. You're going to see a TV-centric experience that's been enhanced."
To date, Cartoon has kept its development activities in line with the narrowband world, Samples said, by concentrating on development material for a 56 kbps connection. That will begin to change next year.
"We're going to build more content on the site specifically for broadband," Samples said.
Cartoon carries 50 Web premiere cartoons aimed at an older sensibility, or "animation snacks," as Samples calls them. He says those cartoons are grabbing attention from college students and office workers.
Cartoon content also appears on AOL Plus, the portion of AOL's online service that automatically lets higher-speed users know broadband content is available.
On the TV side, Cartoon is working with Open TV on a
interactive TV application, through which viewers can get more information about the series.
TNS also is working with Open TV on a National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) application. It has also created virtual channels for Cable News Network, Cartoon and Turner Classic Movies with Liberate Technologies for Telewest Communications plc in the United Kingdom. The channels are simplified Web sites, according to Cohen, with text, JPEG images and hyperlinks.
Games linked to Turner programs are another area of development. "Games could be used for a number of different systems," said Samples.
"Most of what we'll do in 2001 is extend the relationship with AOL TV," Samples continued. "We want to have better games and polling."
Cartoon is working on a test of real-time interactivity through AOL TV next year using on-screen clickables, Samples said.
Samples said he believes advertisers will support these efforts. "We provide them multiple points of content," he said, with ITV as the latest element added to the mix.
The combination of on-air, online and ITV will work, he said. Turner has already made headway with Wink, through CNN, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and Turner Network Television. "We're optimistic advertisers will respond to that."
Game Show Network also believes its content is a natural for broadband interactivity.
"We have a firm belief that game shows have always been interactive, even if that meant yelling at your TV set," said Kristin Peace, vice president of programming for GSN.
GSN has produced interactive version of
Wheel of Fortune
for WebTV Networks Inc. for the past two years.
Spiderdance Inc. has created an integrated Internet and TV version of
"We're trying to expand out relationship with the maximum number of viewers," Peace said, across all platforms and appliances.
GSN is working with Liberate Technologies and Open TV, as well as Microsoft's WebTV unit, on porting content to different platforms. The network's
Three's A Crowd
appears on Liberate/AOL TV's interactive platform.
The work with WebTV "has created a huge library of experience," Peace said. GSN has learned the importance of cutting down latency times with fast-paced games. The network found that DBS subscribers playing along with a game suffered a 2.5 second latency compared to cable subscribers, Peace said. Now content is synchronized so all players compete in real time, no matter the platform.
Peace believes GSN eventually will generate revenue from a paid gaming service. "There's a large market for that kind of interaction," she said.