When CBS wanted to offer high-definition telecasts of its primetime lineup and National Football League games in 1999, it cut a deal with Mitsubishi Corp. to subsidize its costs.
Similarly, NBC recently announced an agreement with HDNet to distribute delayed programming from next month's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on its high-definition channel, which is distributed on DirecTV Inc.'s satellite platform.
But while the roughly 1 million U.S. viewers with high-definition televisions will have access to crystal-clear images from the Olympics — which typically draws the highest ratings in television — the 6-million-plus U.S. homes with access to interactive-television programming won't be offered anything special next month.
"We haven't found an approach or business model that would support the cost of an ITV product," said NBC Olympics executive vice president Gary Zenkel.
Of the major broadcasters, NBC has been one of the more progressive in terms of adding layers of interactivity to its programming. Earlier this month, NBC and Wink Communications Inc. launched a virtual channel on DirecTV that offers on-demand news programming and interactive commerce.
And last year, NBC allowed viewers of the sitcom Just Shoot Me
to vote on one of three potential endings for an episode.
So why would the network pursue a high-definition product for the Olympics, but not offer viewers interactive scores and other ITV content, considering the interactive universe dwarfs the number of homes with high-definition sets?
The key reason, said Zenkel, is that unlike HDNet — which offered to provide equipment and subsidize the costs of shooting the games in high definition — no ITV provider was willing to help foot the bill for interactive Olympic programming.
Another important factor that deterred NBC was the number of cable and satellite homes with digital set-tops that enable interactivity, said NBC Digital Media vice president of business development Carla Sinatra. "Had we been at 10 million [homes] this time, we might have a different story."
NBC did consider using Microsoft Corp.'s UltimateTV set-top to allow viewers to access multiple camera angles for some Olympics events, Sinatra said. But that wouldn't have been practical, Zenkel noted.
If NBC does add an interactive element to its coverage of the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, it may allow viewers to access profiles of athletes, medal counts, program schedules and other data, Sinatra said.
Although none of the event footage from the Salt Lake Games will contain ITV enhancements, some of the ads will contain interactivity triggers, Sinatra said.
Wink Communications vice president of client marketing services Karen Gold said the company is working on deals with General Motors Corp. and some other advertisers interested in running enhanced ads during Olympics telecasts.
Regarding the issue of subsidizing costs for Olympics programming, Wink spokeswoman Janette Corby said NBC didn't ask the company for help in paying for ITV-enhanced programming.
One of the challenges in adding an interactive layer to the Olympics is the cost involved in enhancing live programming, said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Josh Bernoff. It's not surprising that Wink and other ITV vendors wouldn't want to subsidize the costs of enhancing the Olympics, he said.
"Eventually this kind of thing has to be done because it makes money," Bernoff said. "And the ITV vendors would really like to get paid for the value they bring to television, not pay for it."