LIVE ISSUE/WEBTV: WebTV preaches the gospel of total convergence - But is the marriage of web and TV technologies really feasible?

For many new-media enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic, the new era began one evening in March last year. It happened during CBS coverage of the Grammy awards and it arrived courtesy of an innocuous-looking 30-second commercial for N2K Music Boulevard, one the largest online music retailers in the US.

For many new-media enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic, the

new era began one evening in March last year. It happened during CBS

coverage of the Grammy awards and it arrived courtesy of an

innocuous-looking 30-second commercial for N2K Music Boulevard, one the

largest online music retailers in the US.



Most viewers were unaware they were witnessing history in the making

because they didn’t have a WebTV access box sitting on top of their

television sets. Those that did - and there are more than 400,000 in the

US - saw an interactive ’i’ icon flashing at the top right-hand corner

of their screens. Early adopters who clicked on the icon were

hyperlinked immediately - or as immediately as you can ever be on the

web - to the N2K website, while the CBS picture was collapsed into a

small onscreen window.



True convergence had arrived. And it’s coming here soon. WebTV, which is

due to unveil its latest technological developments on 25 March, began

trialling in the UK last year. At Christmas, Carlton and Granada began

supplying interactive content for some of its programmes. A multi-window

screen management system lets WebTV viewers watching, say, Coronation

Street call up online information about the programme without losing the

plot.



Then there’s British Interactive Broadcasting, which will launch

Open ... on the Sky digital platform within the next few weeks. Cable

also promises big things.



Convergence means different things to different people. For web

enthusiasts, convergent technologies are a way of driving the internet’s

penetration - even technophobes will get hooked if they can access the

web via their TV sets.



But for the marketing community, it means a lot more. Those convinced of

the potential power of the internet as a marketing device would like to

see the evolution of a new hybrid medium, with viewers being encouraged

to move seamlessly from broadcast to online.



The beauty of WebTV is that it ticks both boxes. It also happens to be

owned by Microsoft and if you’re betting on the future, where better to

place your money? Patrick Burton, vice-president, media and brands

communication, at Allied Domecq, says: ’My initial excitement about

WebTV was all to do with the ease with which you could move from

television to the internet.



That would obviously be great for advertisers wanting to see more

interactive commercials.’



In the US, a handful of advertisers have followed N2K’s example and the

UK trial of WebTV has gained momentum. In mid-February, Flextech came on

board - and, unlike Carlton and Granada, intends to experiment with

interactive advertising. It will also introduce online back-up for its

two transactional channels, Screenshop and TV Travel Shop.



So far so good. But there may be trouble ahead. Signals are starting to

emerge that Microsoft is losing patience. It is rumoured to be unhappy

at the slow take-up rate in the States. And look at its recent deals

with cable operators, for instance the dollars 500 million it invested

in NTL. Some analysts believe Microsoft is not just after accelerated

access to homes, but better convergence technology too.



WebTV’s biggest problem is that standard internet pages just don’t look

very good on living room television screens. Burton admits he has been

disappointed with what he’s seen: ’There are problems. The colours might

not come out right or there might be distortion on the text. I’m not

saying they won’t get it right - but it is tricky.’



Paul Longhurst, managing director of Quantum, agrees: ’WebTV is a first

generation step. I feel that what they’re doing is driven by technology

rather than something built for the consumer. And I think Microsoft is

frustrated because it is plugging away with a system that is not as

advanced as that soon to be available from Open....’



Open.... is the single biggest challenge faced by WebTV - on this side

of the Atlantic at least. Despite initial scepticism, advertisers have

been impressed with what it has to offer. Open.... is easy to use and

looks great. But when you flip through to the online domain, you don’t

go on to the internet at all: you find yourself in a ’walled garden’

created by broadcasters and advertisers. You can’t go wandering off into

the uncharted vastness of the web. The media owner is still in

control.



And for some, this is potentially a big issue. Open...., and some of its

mooted rivals on cable, will offer interactive advertising but they

won’t offer convergence. They will merely steal some online ideas and

bolt them on to the existing medium. Many believe that, as the market

heats up, WebTV will have to evolve in that direction too if it is to

survive. In the big picture, is that what advertisers really want?



Some companies are philosophically attracted to the web partly because

of what they see as its potential for good in society. Procter & Gamble,

for one, believes it’s about knowledge, empowerment and choice. It wants

to be associated with those sorts of ideals.



For Jane Ostler, managing partner of MindShare Digital, this is not

about value judgments. She states: ’Total convergence is not in the

interests of media owners or consumers. Walled gardens have been proved

to work and media owners can use them to create new revenue streams. It

works better for consumers too because they are not confronted with

unlimited choice. Total convergence has always been a theoretical rather

than a practical desire.’



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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).