Programmers: Make OCAP Happen

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Las Vegas -- Three top TV-programming executives said cable operators have been slow off the mark in deploying a standardized platform for interactive television, making it impossible to launch applications on any sort of scale.

The hope is that the industry is now serious about adopting Cable Television Laboratories’ OpenCable Application Platform, which would provide a common middleware for programmers and advertisers to develop for.

“We want the operators to raise their hands … and say, ‘We’ll make [OCAP] happen,’” said Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media for the Disney ABC Television Group, at a panel discussion at The Cable Show ’07.

The pace of OCAP deployments has been “slower than we’d like it to be,” The Weather Channel CEO Debora Wilson said, although she noted, “Operators have had a lot on their plate,” including the move to add more HD programming.

Added Wilson, “We as programmers support OCAP because it allows us to publish and deploy broadly … Otherwise you have a really difficult and probably impossible, environment to program content and advertising against.”

Cable has been working on OCAP for at least eight years, and operators still have yet to move beyond limited market trials of the technology. Recently, the industry pledged to widely roll out the technology by the third quarter of 2008.

OCAP “rationalizes this sort of fractured-platform environment” that has existed for iTV platforms for years, Wilson said, in which the same application had to be rewritten many times. For example, with wireless content today, she added, there are more than 200 different devices a content provider must develop for. “That makes it really, really hard to do that with effective scale,” she said.

In the absence of a common iTV platform, programmers have been doing more work with interactive-video applications on the Internet as they race to keep up with the YouTubes of the Web world to find new ways to engage the next generation of viewers.

“We’re competing with folks who can take our content, unpaid for, and take it wherever they want and do whatever they want with it,” NBC Universal chief digital officer George Kliavkoff said, adding that with iTV, “we need to figure out how to make the experience better for the consumer … and there’s not a lot of time to get it perfect.”

On OCAP, Cheng said the programmers and cable operators probably “waste[d] a lot of time negotiating, trying to figure out how to monetize this.” In the meantime, he added, “The entire world has sped ahead of us.”

TWC developed an OCAP-based application that allows a viewer to see weather information for different areas and see what programs are coming up on the network. But today, Wilson said, there aren’t any cable operators that have OCAP-enabled set-tops or headends to run such an application. “We have to have the ability to deploy,” she added. “That’s a fundamental, sort of gatekeeping thing.”

ABC developed a prototype of an OCAP application for the show Lost, which provided a trivia game that viewers could play during the show. However, Cheng said, “we didn’t think this would be a great viewer experience … People are so used to the 10-foot application; it was more distracting and less entertaining.”

The broadcaster has done more work with interactive applications on the Web. For example, for the season finale of Wildfire in March, ABC hosted online “screening rooms” with live chat and video feeds. It also developed an online feature that shrinks the video into the upper-left-hand corner when a viewer presses the “pause” button, displaying an advertiser’s billboard (e.g., Nike) in the center of the screen.

Cheng said that with interactive-video applications, whether online or on a set-top box, ABC is leaning away from content and toward ads. “We really feel the advertising opportunity is greater,” he said. “We’ve focused on delivering a better message for [advertising] clients.”

Kliavkoff said there are probably some iTV applications that are more effective than others. Voting on American Idol, for example, could someday be carried out using OCAP-enabled set-top boxes.

“It strikes me that there’d be tens of millions of people who would do that on their televisions, and that revenue that’s going to wireless carriers could go to people in this room,” he said.

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