I-RECALL: Spotlight On - ITC guidelines. The ITC applies its guidelines to interactive TV advertising. The rules aim to separate editorial from commercial content

The future of television is going to be all about the blurring of the line between 'editorial' programming and commercial messages. In a world ruled by video on demand, personal hard drive VCRs and interactive television, your so-called captive audience will inevitably go walkabout.

The future of television is going to be all about the blurring of the line between 'editorial' programming and commercial messages. In a world ruled by video on demand, personal hard drive VCRs and interactive television, your so-called captive audience will inevitably go walkabout.

So, for the broadcast economy to survive we're going to see all sorts of grey area initiatives and continued evolution of advertiser-funded programming. As advertisers chase elusive audiences, commercial messages will increasingly be embedded in staple programming - that means everything from product placement to what are effectively long-form commercials or 'programmercials'.

It's going to happen. It has to happen. We can all agree about that, can't we? Er ... no, actually. Certainly not as far as the Independent Television Commission is concerned. Its guidelines on the regulation of interactive television services, published last week, make it crystal clear that it will seek to maintain a dividing line between editorial and advertising.

Surely, though, what happens in the interactive domains of services such as Open is nothing to do with the ITC. These 'walled gardens' are akin to the internet and are explored at the whim of viewers, not pushed at them as conventional television programmes are. Agreed, the ITC says - but only if said interactive domains are not accessed via conventional TV programming.

The ITC also makes it clear that if interactive material walks and talks like television programming, it will be treated by the regulator as such, regardless of the access route. The guidance document states: 'There may be circumstances where a content provider on a dedicated service provides programming - an example could be a supermarket chain providing cookery programmes for users of an electronic shopping mall. Such content providers would be licencees in the same way as conventional TV companies and would thus be subject to ITC licensing requirements.'

Additionally, there must be no doubt in viewers' minds that they have left the sanctity of the conventional TV environment. The borderland must be well flagged - in other words, surely, the click-through process is to be as cumbersome as possible.

So, does all of this constitute a set-back for the interactive TV industry? Nick Bryant, the sales director of Open, doesn't think so.

'Of course, the ITC's guiding principles become more problematical as we go into the interactive environment but they are basically sound. We have no problem with the principle that viewers should never be in any doubt about what they are watching.'

Bryant is also supportive of the 'two clicks' principle, which puts a clear distance between the programming environment and the commercial environment.

In conclusion, he regards this as a significant step forward: 'It's quite a minefield but the ITC isn't blind to the fact that we all have to move forward. I think it's a situation analogous to the opt-in versus opt-out debate in direct marketing. It's only fair that viewers know where they stand.'

Some advertisers clearly regard the ITC's stance as irksome, if predictable.

As one source puts it: 'Ideally, we'd like to take people straight from programming into the commercial environment. If people want products, it's usually because they've seen them on TV. If we can capitalise on that, then it's very powerful.'

Other advertisers would regard that as somewhat irresponsible. Bernard Balderston, the associate director, UK media, of Procter & Gamble, has a straightforward response: 'We're supportive of the ITC guidelines.'

But Andrew Howells, the managing director of BMP TVi, argues that the document is not only misguided but, in practical terms, it's unworkable, especially in the longer term. He states: 'The TV industry is faced with a tidal wave and what's coming will turn the industry on its head. I seriously don't think the ITC can stand in the way of what's coming. You can only hope that whatever regulatory organisation replaces the ITC will have an even lighter touch.'

But will it have a detrimental effect on the development of interactive TV in the short term? Very possibly, Howells says: 'Yes, the ITC is trying to put barriers up, and, yes, it doesn't help the interactive proposition. If they have to, people will find ways round those barriers but, in the long run, I can see this document serving very little purpose.'


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