In an effort to accelerate the market for
interactive-television services, a cross-industry group released draft specifications for
enhanced-television programming last week.
Cable Television Laboratories Inc. and Intel Corp. led the
push to create the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) last fall to come up with
protocols for linking TV programming with interactive content, including Web pages.
Other founding members include DirecTv Inc., Cable News
Network, Discovery Communications Inc., The Walt Disney Co., Microsoft Corp./WebTV
Networks, NBC Multimedia Inc., Network Computer Inc., NDTC Technology, Public Broadcasting
Service, Sony Corp., Tribune Co. and Warner Bros.
The draft specification is posted on the group's Web
site, www.atvef.com. The group is seeking comments through August from all
interested parties worldwide, and it hopes to announce a formal specification late in the
"Initially, a lot of people may have been surprised to
see cable, satellite and broadcasters working together," said Jerry Bennington,
senior vice president for Internet technologies at CableLabs.
But without a common standard, many believe that the market
is hindered from reaching its full potential.
"The fact that all of these prominent companies -- and
staunch competitors, at that -- are supportive of this effort is testament to the fact
that the industry needs the standard," said Jay Schneider, vice president of
engineering and technical development for Discovery. "Without a standard, the
marketplace is too fractionalized to lend success to any venture."
Programmers appreciate a single protocol for
enhanced-television content because it means that they don't have to author
programming several times for transport on different video platforms or for delivery to
different brands of receivers. And compatibility across different platforms should assure
consumers that any compliant receiver won't lack a wealth of interactive services.
Steve Guggenheim, group product manager for digital
television at Microsoft, said the drive behind the common specification is based on the
success of different Web browsers on the market.
"Browsers can compete," he said, "but they
all use the same standards."
Others agree that the World Wide Web would not have taken
off so quickly if there hadn't been one standard that content creators could write
ATVEF members hope that their spec will be adopted
worldwide, just as Internet protocol has been.
Discovery, for example, delivers TV and Internet content to
144 countries. "We are a global company," Schneider said. " A worldwide
standard is critical to our success."
C.J. Fredricksen, strategic marketing manager, broadcast at
Intel, said the ATVEF is working with technical-standards committees around the world in
an attempt to have the new specifications incorporated in a variety of industry standards,
including OpenCable, Advanced Television Systems Committee and Digital Video Broadcasting.
Schneider said the ATVEF group "made a conscious
effort to exploit already developed and widely accepted standards in the television and
Internet world." The specification is designed to be flexible, and not to favor any
existing interactive-television system over the others.
The ATVEF will charge a one-time licensing fee for the
spec, but it is not planning to add a royalty fee.
The ATVEF specification was created to work across a
variety of platform providers, including cable, satellite and broadcast television -- both
analog and digital. Receiving technology could include cable set-tops, direct-broadcast
satellite systems, stand-alone interactive boxes and integrated televisions.
Ultimately, the group would like to see the ATVEF standard
adopted by any and all companies involved in interactive-TV programming.
"Now we get in the evangelist mode," Bennington
Last week, some additional companies, including Wink
Communications Inc. and Tele-Communications Inc., endorsed the ATVEF.
"We want to promote a situation where we have the
largest possible content community creating around a common standard," said David
Beddow, senior vice president of TCI Ventures LLC.
Bennington said CableLabs has talked about the ATVEF to its
members for quite some time, and MSOs want to encourage the development of interactive
Carriage of the services themselves would still depend on
existing or future agreements between programmers and cable providers.
The ATVEF is not involved in determining the business
models for interactive services such as electronic commerce.
"Once you get the authoring issues out of the way,
businesspeople can come in and have a lot of fun," Bennington said. "This deal
was done so that the creative guys can be creative and the business guys can be
Bennington said the ATVEF-compliant products will not
require a two-way path for enhanced broadcasting, although a return path would facilitate
applications such as e-commerce.
Simple broadcast enhancements might include making
available additional information on actors or characters during a soap opera or sports
trivia during a football game. E-commerce applications could include selling the clothing
that a soap opera star is wearing or certain sports memorabilia online.
ATVEF members forecast that initial compliant products
could hit the streets late this year or early next year.
Beddow predicted that TCI would deliver ATVEF services as
early as next year.
"Obviously, it won't be all services from day
one," he added. "There's some software development that will take a year to
18 months to develop and test."