I-RECALL: Spotlight On - Interactive digital TV. Will games spearhead the next generation of interactive TV ads? Gaming channel PlayJam's high ratings are a wake-up call. Alasdair Reid reports

The audience figures produced by PlayJam last week took a lot of

people by surprise.



For a start, many were troubled by the notion that a games service could

actually have audience ratings in exactly the same way as a conventional

television channel has ratings. Aren't games a fringe activity,

peripheral to the real business of watching telly? Yes and no,

obviously. And, after all, both activities involve the same sorts of

eyeballs, the same sorts of glue and the same sorts of TV screen - if

anything, the eyeball glue is actually stronger. You can't play and do

the ironing at the same time, can you? Each rating point is a genuine,

copper-bottomed one.



But, having taken all of that on board, even more perplexing for some

was the realisation that PlayJam's audience against the 16- to

34-year-old demographic on the Sky Digital platform is actually better

than a lot of highly fancied contenders. All five terrestrial channels

score higher (though Channel 5 only just sneaked in), as do Sky 1, Sky

Sports 2, Premier and UK Gold. But, on an average ratings score of 0.25

per cent, PlayJam is ahead of E4, Sky Sports 1, Paramount and, perhaps

most surprisingly of all, MTV.



This is astonishing for a channel barely four months old and one that

hasn't really been marketed as yet. But the figures do come with

something of a health warning. They were produced by PlayJam's owner,

Static2358, from a week's worth of raw data from Barb's Sky Digital

panel. It's a snapshot of the behaviour of a small sample size and isn't

the gold standard of Barb audience data on which TV airtime is traded.

But even the most sceptical believe that these figures reflect a

powerful underlying reality.



Does this upset our current models of the commercial TV economy?

Conventional media owners will not take much cheer from these figures.

But it's not necessarily bad for advertisers because it helps retain

viewers within the television environment. Paul Longhurst, the managing

director of Quantum New Media, says: 'You have to remember that with

some demographics, television has been competing for attention with the

games console for a long time now. It's actually a very big issue,

especially when you look at the vision Microsoft has in this field (the

software giant is working on technologies to facilitate the distribution

and download of more games). I suspect that gaming will come near the

top of popular activities on all interactive television platforms.'



Some would suggest that PlayJam's figures could be a significant turning

point for interactive television - they bring home to the marketplace,

in a manner it can truly understand, that this medium has real

potential.



Andrew Howells, the managing director of BMPTVi, states: 'The very least

it will do is alert people that there is something interesting going on

here. And there are lots of ways that you can attach a little bit of

advertising on to games.'



There are indeed. For instance, you can place banner ads within menu

windows or run pop-up interstitials while games are loading - and both

these formats link through to microsites.



The example used by Peter Lilley, PlayJam's director of media sales, is

an old game we're all familiar with - Pac-man. Imagine, he says, Pac-man

eating Smarties instead of dots. 'The best way to make this happen

creatively is for the guardian of the brand to come and sit down with us

here - and we believe we have the largest group of games designers in

Europe. We can look at the 35-40 games we have in our library and find

one that works and then integrate the brand. That's called reskinning.

But if you can't find a game to suit from the library, we can design one

for you,' he says.



A reskin costs pounds 15,000 and takes six weeks; a fresh design takes

up to ten weeks and costs pounds 40,000. The games at present are fairly

basic - quick quizzes and simple graphics games such as Tetris - which

makes PlayJam's success all the more remarkable.



Everyone should take heed, Longhurst says: 'With e-commerce, most big

companies got to a point pretty quickly where, at the very least, they

were comfortable with the issues involved. But with the equivalent in

interactive television - t-commerce - the issues are less well

understood, even though it is performing well in penetration terms. A

lot of the people using it currently, and this is to some extent

reflected by the PlayJam figures, are at the younger end of the market,

but you have to consider that in five to ten years' time those same

people will be among a company's most important customers.'



Toby Hack, an associate director at OMD, agrees with that. He concludes:

'Games are not just good fun, they can be addictive. Within a context in

which media fragmentation is set to increase, and where even mass-market

programming won't be able to deliver the big ratings they once did, this

sort of thing holds out the prospect of better targeting from an

advertiser point of view. But we all have to learn to move forward. I

know some advertisers and agencies don't really want to think about this

- it's exciting but it's scary too. We have to get a handle on what

people are doing in the interactive environment and how that activity

can fit with advertisers' brands.'



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