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Interactive TV: the world talks back.

After every major California earthquake, as the old joke goes, people buy up thousands of acres of land in Arizona and Nevada. Why? Because someday beachfront property will be extremely valuable after "The Big One" comes. The same principle may well apply to interactive TV. No one has quite figured out where the "beachfront" of the interactive television boom may lie, but the prevailing theory is that owning property there will be a smashingly lucrative proposition.

Entertainment conglomerates and the newest players - the telephone companies-are all testing the lastest technologies nationwide in preparation for the "big one". Viacom, partnered with ATET, is experimenting with movies-on-demand and home shopping in Castro Valley, California. Viacom plans to offer improved or expanded versions of services they are already strong in, reported Bob Myers, vp of interactive television. He cited the Viacom-owned Showtime network as one service that could be delivered monthly as Showtime-on-demand (working title: Showtime Anytime). Time Warner will launch its broad-based Full Service Network in Orlando, Florida, and they hope to have the fiber optic system operating in 4,000 homes by year's end, and have earmarked a projected $5 billion to develop the network. Bell Atlantic was the first telephone company to break through the cable law of 1984 and win approval to offer video programming in its service area. Accordingly, Bell hopes to offer two-way interactive services within 18 months to a half dozen markets and aims for 8.5 million homes by the year 2000. U.S. West also recently won approval to program in 14 states, and will test 2,500 homes in Omaha, Nebraska. Their service, among other standard features, will offer two-way video and a video dial tone. And telco giant GTE recently announced plans to build its own video interactive network to deliver broadcast, cable and interactive television programs to seven million homes in 66 cities by 2003.

As the consumer testing intensifies, the technology continues to advance in leaps and bounds. Microsoft is releasing its latest version of the Windows operating system, which will simplify the process of connecting personal computers to cable and telephone networks. Intel is rolling out a modem that enables PC users to receive information from a cable TV network 2,000 times faster than a conventional modem. And, Prodigy in San Diego has already tapped into the local cable lines offering text, sound, and shortly, video, for its on-line computer service. As test marketing demonstrates demand, in time, consumer prices will drop to encourage more subscribers to sign on.

A User's Guide

So the development dollars are in place, the regulatory bodies are clearing the decks, and the technology wizards are foaming at the bit finally having found a layman's venue to test their genius. That still leaves an unanswered question. What exactly is interactive TV and what will consumers do with it? The new systems, delivered on both televison and PCs, are promising everything from the ability to choose your favorite camera angle during a football game, to play-at-home game shows. Movies-on-demand are literally synonymous for what interactive TV promises to be, and will be incorporated into virtually every system. TV news is ripe for interactivity and in London, Carlton Television and London Weekend Television have linked up with cable operator Videotron to deliver an interactive news channel. Viewers can choose from local programming such as weather and traffic, or opt for the main news program. The experimental service is available to 65,000 subscribers and will be tested for six to 12 months. Already on-line in the U.S., ESPN and Prodigy are betting that fans will flock to their computer screens to spar sports trivia with their favorite sports stars and announcers on a joint system called ESPNET recently rolled out in twelve cities. Barry Diller's QVC network is banking on America's need to shop more by TV, hence the startup of Q2. However, home shopping is truly the dinosaur of interactive TV. The real direction may well lie with the pioneers who are designing and producing the entertainment-based content for the countless delivery systems.

The Interactive Players

In Los Angeles and New York, and naturally, the birthplace of it all - the Silicon Valley - formally grounded people in the business world are dropping everything to jump on the interactive programming bandwagon. Like the early days of movie making, programmers are all vying to become the cyber-studio of the not so distant future. For example, Paramount has formed an interactive unit in Palo Alto to develop programming with AT&T, and Tachyon, an Oakhurst software company, is adapting Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for the new Par unit. Interactive Network in Sunnyvale has backing from NBC, Tele-communications, Inc., Gannett and A.C. Nielsen to produce interactive news, sports and game programming. Even powerhouse talent agency CAA has jumped into the fray, signing AT&T former CFO Robert Kavner to head its multimedia ventures.

Then there are the independent players looking to make a big splash in the new marketplace. Take Strauss Zelnick, for example. Formerly the head of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., he's given up the big mogul life to form Crystal Dynamics, Inc. His goal is to become the first interactive studio of the future. Zelnick brings big name investors HBO and King World with his camp, and he is not alone going to bat with a Hollywood support system.

Knowledge Adventure, Inc., La Crescenta, California, has enlisted the support of Steven Spielberg to develop software products. Some of the titles will license Spielberg characters, and others will be developed from scratch with Spielberg's input, reported Knowledge Chairman William Gross. Fathom Pictures, based out of Sausalito has formed a coventure with the Griffin Group, backed by Merv Griffin's investment dollars. Sanctuary Woods Multimedia Corporation, Victoria, B.C., is developing product for The Comedy Channel, including titles with HBO comic star Dennis Miller. And AT&T has invested in P.F. Magic Inc., a San Francisco multimedia company.

Software ostensibly developed for CD-ROM could be the jumping off point for the new wave of interactive programming and accordingly, entertainment conglomerates worldwide are investing in major software companies. Pearson PLC is paying $462 million to buy Software Tools Inc., a Silicon Valley producer of multimedia programs. Electronic Arts Inc. has agreed to pay $400 million for Broderbund Software, Inc., creator of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. As these companies develop the software to digitally combine video, voice and text, licensing agreements are being snapped up for countless properties, such as the Star Wars characters and Marvel Comic's Captain America. Companies such as Total Clearance in Mill Valley, California, are ringing up business just managing the plethora of clearances needed to use a clip, and the Hollywood talent guilds such as the WGA have divisions whose sole purpose is to protect the creative rights of those whose work is being used for multimedia product.

Remote Controls of the Future

The telephone is the earliest form of interactivity viewers are dealing with, noted NBC vp of technology, Michael Sherlock. "Some day you will be able to push a button on your remote and have the TV dial the 800 number automatically," he said. The next level is where CD-ROM is today and it involves "branching," where the viewer can "interactively" change or influence the outcome of a program. CD-ROM promises to be the testing ground for consumers who will someday support interactive TV. Rocket Science Games, Palo Alto, is attempting to combine Silicon Valley skills with Hollywood glitz. Their first offering due this fall is Loadstar, a Star Wars- type story. In the $750,000 production, the interactive viewer can alter the outcome in a variety of ways. Will people leap out of their chairs for this kind of interactive entertainment? Rocket Science president Steven Gary Blank hopes so. "We are going to become big players in interactive TV by creating compelling stories that emphasize characters and give you a kinetic hang-on-to-your-socks ride," he said. Based on the number of shingles being hung out for business in the software content development area alone, sooner, not later, the public taste for truly interactive programming is going to be tested.

Italy Dumps Interactive TV

The Italians have seen the future and they don't like it - at least if it's interactive.

A hand-held device called "Quizzy" intended to allow the home audience to compete directly for prizes in TV game shows, has been abandoned seven months after its introduction by Silvio Berlusconi's Fininvest commerical networks.

The 200,000 Italians who laid out $25 to buy a Quizzy, which resembles a remote control, had been promised that their favorite game shows would continue supporting the device for at least a year after its introduction.

Unfortunately, it did not increase the audience figures of those shows where it was used. "The only people willing to buy and use it were the quiz show fanatics who already watch us anyway," said a Fininvest insider.

Quizzy, heavily launched in Berlusconi print and electronic media as a "first step toward interactive television," compares answers keyed in by quiz show viewers with data patterns stored previously in its circuits.

Lucky winners at this point were to call a central switchboard and let the device beep their coded scores over the phone line to computers on the other end. There were problems from the beginning. When Quizzy was launched, the Italian political Left claimed that it was "an attack on democracy" that it might somehow be used as an electronic voting device representing viewers limited to the Berlusconi audience.

A more serious PR problem arose from the Fininvest decision to obligate home players to call in their scores on Italian 144 "pay service" lines like those used for chat lines and telephone horoscopes. These are the equivalent of American and British "900" lines.

The slow automated answering system made this profitable for the broadcaster, but irritated viewers who were running up big phone bills reporting scores which only rarely entitled them to a prize.
COPYRIGHT 1994 TV Trade Media, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Info Superhighway; includes article on failed Quizzy venture in Italy
Author:Carlton, Ken
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Aug 1, 1994
Previous Article:CD-ROM takes a front seat role.
Next Article:Beyond cable: sat-TV is beaming.

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