Imagine being able to point your remote-control gizmo at the latest over-the-top US hair-care commercial and press the “I never want to see that ad again” button. Now imagine your customers doing the same.
The potential effects of Digital Interactive Television (iTV) are considerable. Numerous conferences, have been accompanied by press speculation on the intentions (honourable or otherwise) of the big media and distribution players - News Corp, Sony, Microsoft, and AOL Time Warner – all [deletion] jostling to get in on the act.
However, considering that iTV comes in a box that has been around for 50 years it must be the most misunderstood technology in the history of media. And if the technical issues are complex the strategic challenges are even more so.
In June, Disney and Sky turned off many of their most popular analogue channels and switched to digital. During the next eight years, the UK TV transmission signal will switch from analogue to digital en masse, so you will be left staring at a blank screen if you don’t have a digital receiver. About 7.8 million people in the UK have access to iTV already through the Sky satellite system, ITV Digital (formerly OnDigital), or the NTL and Telewest cable platforms. By 2005, the total is estimated to be 60%, rising to over 90% by the end of the decade. All major TV viewing will be digital by 2010.
The main ‘promise’ of iTV is to provide better programming than either analogue TV or the Internet because increased bandwidth allows superior content and wide choice. If you saw the recent BBC Digital coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament you’ll know what this means; a single viewer could select a match to watch from up to five live contests, view dynamically updated statistics, comments and player profiles or just watch all five matches at once, each with it’s own screen and commentary. This level of interaction goes beyond mere choice to what Tim Berners-Lee calls “intercreativity”, the ability of audiences to shift from passive observation to active personalisation.
Intercreativity is a powerful tool both for engaging audiences and for collecting data. Because viewers can tailor their own content (that is, personalise it rather than have it customised for them) their relationship with the channel, programme, or advertisement can be deepened; which in turn engenders brand loyalty.
E-commerce (predictably re-named ‘t-commerce’) involves a homely device that has been in the living room since the coronation in 1953. Consumers are much more receptive to the TV, feel much safer with it and are more likely to purchase via the TV than is the case with their virus-ridden, hacker-susceptible PCs.
A recent BMRB report claims that only 30% of Net users think that entering their credit card details on it is safe. This figure jumps to 40% for iTV. When you couple this with Gartner’s estimate that t-commerce will yield £5.1bn by 2005, iTV starts to look like more than just an attractive advertising medium. It’s a whole new distribution channel.
Moreover, because “the telly” is a social piece of technology, communication can be delivered right into the heart of the home. Unlike the young, professional and tech-savvy bias of Web audiences, iTV audiences are very broad.
In fact, iTV is so unlike either TV or a website that industry pundits are calling for a radical new approach to the medium. At the heart of this is a consumer insight: people use iTV differently from either traditional TV or the Web. Audiences expect a level of entertainment from their TV that they do not expect from the Net.
And because iTV content can be database linked, it is easier to use more effective customer-relationship- management tools than would be possible with analogue TV.
Until now, TV advertising has had the vague role of raising awareness, but the link between this awareness and business success has required a leap of faith. Now iTV has the potential to make broadcast media accountable.
The holy grail is measurability; an iTV presence can be tracked. And it can be tracked against benchmarks that have a closer relationship to business results than awareness does. Treating the channel as a direct response presence allows the development of the kind of business cases that, until now, we have only seen in direct mail campaigns. Just wait until we start talking about TV production budgets in terms of cost per response. You can almost feel the shudder running through Soho.
I don’t doubt that we will continue to see for the next two years at least those unthinking 60/40% TV/print splits that are characteristic of fmcg marketing plans. However, the transition to digital will surely necessitate a new approach. Interactive TV demands that we look at the medium with a disregard for the prejudices of the past. Slowly, but surely, a new medium is taking shape that will radically alter relationships with customers, clients and brands.
itv, idtv, dtv. Interactive television, interactive digital television, or just plain old digital television are used in a variety of ways but generally mean a bundle of services made possible through a combination of increased available bandwidth and a “back channel” or return phone line.
Bandwidth. The information-carrying capacity of a channel or cable, usually measured in bits per second (bps) or kilobits per second (thousand bits per second, kbps).
Enhanced television. The embedding of additional, and possibly interactive, functions within the standard TV stream. These could include, picture-in-picture viewing, return-path voting or electronic program guides.
PVR. The Personal Video Recorder or TiVo (a brand name that is fast becoming the generic) typically stores programming on a huge hard disk allowing you to pause a “live” show, rewind, select shows from various channels and ‘compose’ your own channel, and even screen out the ads.
DTT. Digital television through a standard aerial and “terrestrial” as opposed to “satellite” network. The newly re-branded iTV Active (formerly OnDigital) is the UK’s only DTT platform with just over a million subscribers.
DST. The service distributed by Sky in the UK, transmitted over a satellite channel (hence Digital Satellite Television). Sky has the UK’s largest subscriber base with 5.3 million users.
DCT. Digital Cable Television, primarily ntl or Telewest, which use the Microsoft-backed Liberate platform. (ntl has 0.95 million subscribers, Telewest 0.5 million.)
EPG. Electronic program guide. The menu that appears on screen telling you what iTV services you can have access to. According to Millward Brown this is the most popular feature of iTV.
VOD, IVOD. Video on demand is a service that allows viewers to select films from the equivalent of an online video rental store. Interactive video on demand packages improve functionality, including the ability to fast-forward, skip, rewind and so on.
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