BSkyB has been uncharacteristically indecisive about its
interactive TV proposition lately. Consider the fate of John Swingewood,
the BSkyB director brought in 18 months ago to head the company's
expansion in new media.
Over the past month or so, he has suffered a whispering campaign and
press speculation about his rumoured, imminent departure, yet official
sources at Sky can neither confirm that he is to leave nor give
assurances that his position is safe.
Swingewood's voicemail has been fielding an awful lot of calls
Not all of them, it has to be said, are being returned.
It's no secret that Sky boss Rupert Murdoch, who was sceptical about the
commercial prospects for the internet in the late 90s, has (despite a
U-turn a couple of years ago) recently hardened his attitude to the web.
That's hardly a surprise given that the rest of the world shares his
rediscovered scepticism. What is surprising, however, is growing
marketplace confusion about a related area - Sky's interactive TV
This, after all, was surely one of its trump cards in the digital TV
It all dates back to Sky's successful moves last July to gain full
control of Open from its erstwhile joint venture partners - BT,
Matsushita and HSBC. Having acquired control, it was assumed that Sky
would absorb the Open sales force - and there was plenty of trade press
speculation that it was indeed about to happen.
It didn't. But if anyone suspected that Open was re-emerging with a
strengthened hand, they'd be wrong. For it began to become apparent that
a separate interactive platform being developed in parallel by Sky was
actually beginning to encroach on Open's territory. Sky Interactive was,
in theory, principally a viewer benefit - for instance, subscribers were
able to choose their own camera angles during football coverage or could
call up more in-depth information behind news stories. But as
advertisers this year have been showing, it can also be used as an
interactive advertising platform too, with viewers being given the
opportunity to click through from the broadcast stream to a Sky
Interactive rather than an Open advertising domain.
And, in recent weeks, advertisers have been receiving ambiguous signals
about Open. There's been speculation that it might merely be rebranded
but some believe it could face more radical integration into the Sky
fold - in terms not just of structure and personnel, but of platform
A Sky spokesman plays down any such suggestions: 'Open will continue to
exist as an interactive shopping mall but interactivity is being
introduced across our whole broadcast stream. It is already an integral
part of Sports and News and is being introduced to Sky Movies over the
next couple of months. There will be t-commerce and a wide range of
interactive opportunities right across the Sky offering. Open is just
one element of what interactivity is about and Sky Interactive people
will continue to work with Open people.'
That's fair enough, but it fails to convince some agencies. Sky, they
say, needs to reinvigorate its interactive strategy and rediscover the
big picture. Paul Longhurst, the managing director of Quantum New Media,
argues that if you take the long view there are some obvious barriers to
growth in the interactive ad market. So almost by definition, he
implies, there are issues to be addressed. 'The main barriers to growth
are cost and technological complexity. Companies want interactive TV
platforms to integrate in a seamless fashion with the existing direct
marketing technologies - websites, call centres, etc - that they already
have. I'd be amazed if Sky didn't understand this.'
Longhurst won't be drawn into outlining the task facing Sky but Andrew
Howells, the managing director of BMPTVi, thinks that change is
inevitable - and not just for technological reasons. He says: 'In my
opinion, not much has been done in building the Open brand. It's a bit
anaemic. Put it this way, it wouldn't do it any harm to be integrated
into the Sky interactive family. I think most people in the market
believe Sky will do it - and it's not hard to see why they might want
to. There's potential cost cutting where there's an overlap and Sky
doesn't normally appear keen to duplicate job functions. And you have to
ask yourself, from an agency point of view, where's the relationship?
It's with Sky mainly.'
Is that view widespread? Yes, in general. And some argue it's all the
more obvious now that ONdigital has been integrated into the ITV family
of brands. Sky has to do something similar to Open. And according to
Nigel Sheldon, the managing partner of m digital, the digital arm of
MindShare, branding issues are becoming more important in the digital TV
'You could argue that, initially, multichannel subscribers signed up
because of their appetite for sport and brands were not as important to
early adopters. But as the multichannel market enters a new phase,
brands will be much more important for the new audiences and it will
apply especially in the area of interactive TV,' he states. 'Technology
will continue to evolve and that is a factor to be considered here. But
there clearly needs to be some form of coherence from the outset.'