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Many Challenge Future of Interactive TV

12/06/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

In the future, don't look to the living-room television set
as the be-all-and-end-all of a family's interactive experience. Why? People are just too
lazy.

That's a simplified version of what cable-programming and
new-media executives said about the prospects for interactive television. The living-room
TV set is fundamentally an entertainment vehicle, and people don't like to work at being
entertained, they argued.

That one fact separates the television from the interactive
medium of choice these days -- the personal computer.

"I think of the TV as a 'lean-back' medium and the
computer as a 'lean-forward' medium," said John Abel, president of Datacast, a
company developing data-broadcasting services for computers.

Abel added that people are not interested in "leaning
forward" to use a TV -- that is, they don't want to work too hard at gathering
information or searching for juicy multimedia tidbits the way that people now browse on
the Web using a PC.

Certainly, some cable programmers are far from convinced
that interactive-TV applications offer much potential, at least in the next few years.

Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing for
MSO Cable One, said his company is not rushing to develop interactive content.

"The television tends to be a passive medium ... I
don't think that it will be very favored as a place to search out information in the short
term," he said.

Other industry executives also pointed out that the
computer, by nature, is used by one person at a time, while the television is a communal
device that is shared.

People already fight over remote controls. What sort of
chaos will break out when people can make choices among hundreds of interactive links? At
the least, some cable executives didn't foresee the television replacing the computer for
interactive information-gathering.

"There will always be a demand for a PC that's
different from a television," said Mike Bresnan, senior vice president at small MSO
Bresnan Communications.

Executives such as Abel said the computer -- or a
computerlike device -- will continue to be the tool of choice for information searches,
while the living room will continue to be used for passive viewing.

Abel imagines convergence differently than most. According
to him, the TV and computer will not become one: They will be replaced by multiple screens
that will be fed information from the same machine -- something similar to a networked
computer server.

A big, high-resolution screen in the living room will be a
natural for watching movies, sports or nature programming, while a smaller, laptop-sized
screen in the kitchen could be used for looking up recipes or information on local
concerts, for example. Why would someone fire up the big screen to look at a recipe?

But don't count television out of the interactive mix, said
Josh Bernoff, a new-media analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

"The idea that people don't interact with the
television is not true," Bernoff said, citing as current examples home shopping
channels and channel-surfing.

Others pointed out split screens, sports tickers and
call-in polls as additional examples of nascent interactive TV.

But just because people have shown an interest in
interacting with their TVs, Bernoff warned that programmers should not overestimate
viewers' level of enthusiasm.

For interactive TV to succeed, Bernoff said, cable
programmers and other television executives need to focus on creating "lazy
interactivity," which he defined as interactive applications designed for quick
decisions, short attention spans, hand-held remotes and instant gratification. Or, more
informally, he described it as something that a viewer can do while holding the remote in
one hand and a beer in the other hand.

Bernoff recently issued a report on this topic, and he
estimates that interactive TV will reach 7 million viewers by 2001. For the report,
Forrester interviewed 28 executives from television networks, producers and advertising
agencies, along with vendors, cable operators and other companies with stakes in
interactive TV.

Beside making interactivity easy, programmers must find the
right kind of programming for interactive additions, Bernoff said. Viewers are less
interested in interactivity while watching linear shows, such as movies, dramas or sitcoms
with narrative story lines.

Rather, Bernoff asserted that nonlinear programming -- such
as news, game shows, talk shows, sports and commercials -- will prove most accommodating
to interactivity.

Award shows, baseball games and political conventions are
examples of "boring programs" that leave plenty of room for interactive
tangents. Extra multimedia information can keep people tuned into shows between periodic
moments of action.

Richard Glover, executive vice president of programming at
ESPN, enthusiastically agreed that interactive TV is well-suited to sports programs.

"All of the information that we're getting is that
there's a demand for extra information that you can control," Glover said.

He cited surveys indicating that one-half of users of an
ESPN Web site, NFL.com, are viewing a football game at the same time that they are at the
site.

"Even now, when interactivity is difficult, people are
doing it however they can," he added.

But even Glover shrugged his shoulders when asked which
applications will prove most popular for interactive TV.

"That's the billion-dollar question, isn't it?"
he asked.

Certainly, a company such as Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV
Networks unit will contend that interactive TV is a concept that is alive and well. The
company said it now has 350,000 subscribers.

Chip Herman, vice president of marketing for Mountain View,
Calif.-based WebTV, said viewers have shown an interest in controlling when they use
interactive features. His company, for example, provides a function that stores the links
that pop up during certain television programming.

Viewers can visit these links at a later time if they are
not in the mood to surf while watching the program.

Herman said the key to interactive-TV programming is to
offer applications that work with the existing habits of viewers, rather than forcing them
to change how they watch TV.

"It needs to be a part of the living-room experience
and fit with people's entertainment needs," he added.

Other industry experts said programmers make the mistake of
lumping all viewers together. Some people will enjoy using the TV to search for
information more than others will.

As has been the case with other new technologies, there is
always a progressive consumer segment that will use a service much more actively, such as
early adopters of the Internet, said Bonnie Busekrus, vice president of programming at MSO
FrontierVision Partners L.P.

Glover expects TV viewers to fall into three general
categories of interactive-TV use: Some will seek out and actively engage in interactive
TV; some will want to use TV only as a passive vehicle; and some will be willing to use
interactive applications, but they will not want to work hard at it.

And Paul Saffo, a researcher with Menlo Park, Calif.-based
think tank The Institute for the Future, said that just because some viewers are tired
from a long day at work or they are lazy couch potatoes, this does not prevent them from
using interactive applications. They just won't use such features as often -- perhaps only
once every 20 minutes.

That shouldn't be too exhausting, should it?

September