MEDIA: FORUM - Will Carlton’s interactive service prove a success? Carlton kicked off its interactive TV service on the ONdigital platform last week. About time, some might say. But how does Carlton’s new service measure up, Alasdair Reid

ONdigital has always faced an uphill battle to avoid becoming the Dr Pepper of the television revolution - fizzy and fresh in a quirky sort of a way but not quite the real thing. Although ONdigital has one or two obvious trump cards - such as live Champions League football - it came later to market than its main rival, SkyDigital, and offers fewer channels. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it has pitched itself as revolutionary, the choice of the generation that’s not afraid to admit it can’t operate its video recorder.

ONdigital has always faced an uphill battle to avoid becoming the

Dr Pepper of the television revolution - fizzy and fresh in a quirky

sort of a way but not quite the real thing. Although ONdigital has one

or two obvious trump cards - such as live Champions League football - it

came later to market than its main rival, SkyDigital, and offers fewer

channels. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it has pitched itself as

revolutionary, the choice of the generation that’s not afraid to admit

it can’t operate its video recorder.



And if ONdigital has attracted scepticism from one or two members of the

advertising and marketing communities, the main cause of that

scepticism, apart from slowish takeup figures, has been the platform’s

absence from the interactive arena. Interactive is the heart of the

matter where advertisers are concerned - from a marketing point of view,

digital is not just about better picture quality and more channel

choice, it’s about establishing a dialogue with viewers.



So last week’s announcement from Carlton, co-owner of the ONdigital

platform, was surely timely. Carlton has launched Carlton Active, a

service which will seek to rival what Open provides for the SkyDigital

platform. Well, almost. Perhaps characteristically, Carlton Active isn’t

quite the full monty - at present it’s not available across the whole

spectrum of ONdigital programming, just Carlton Food Network and Carlton

Cinema.



The service isn’t fully interactive either. There’s no return loop at

present and all you can do is choose from a range of text services that

are downloaded on the transmission stream that carries sound and vision.

It is, in effect, an enhanced teletext service.



In contrast, Open offers an interactive domain ’behind’ the real-time

television service - a zone of microsites that you can interact with in

much the same way as you’d interact with websites. Open offers video

streaming (moving pictures, basically) and Carlton Active doesn’t. A

plus point for the Carlton system, however, is the fact that you can

keep watching your programme in a reduced sized window while reading the

’interactive’ text.



Carlton sources emphasise that this initiative is just the start and as

the technology evolves it will be able to offer full interactive

functionality - instant booking and ordering via your remote. But is the

market prepared to be patient? Has Carlton Digital helped to make up

lost ground while reaffirming its intentions to stay in the interactive

race? Or does it emphasise the fact that terrestrial digital is just an

inferior platform?



David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, knows more about

this than most - he was instrumental in making Chicken Tonight the UK’s

first interactive TV brand on Open. Cuff states: ’I’m pleased to see

Carlton being proactive. It’s true that the interactivity being offered

by Carlton is limited. The ultimate strength of interactive television

is when it harnesses all of television’s powerful attributes. Moving

pictures come at the top of the list, so it’s disappointing they can’t

deliver that.



’But Carlton is offering an opportunity for all marketers to extend and

enhance their marketing techniques. It gives you the opportunity to go

one stage further, using television’s ability to capture people

unexpectedly then allow them to talk to you. The move from talking to

people to asking them things is very important. The focus is moving

towards relationship marketing and the ability to pull together the

emotional power of TV and DM techniques.’



Cuff also argues that, though it may be technically inferior to Open,

the system’s strong-point is accessibility. It will encourage a broader

range of people to master the new technologies. Paul Longhurst, the

managing partner of Quantum New Media Services, agrees: ’It’s behind

Open, which has close on three million households. It doesn’t have the

return path that Open has. You could say it is merely enhanced teletext

but you shouldn’t underestimate the worth of this initiative and the

signals it sends. Any investment made by media owners - especially when

revenue will take time to follow - should be welcomed. It continues to

change the face of what we can do for advertisers.’



Longhurst is also excited about the opportunities it brings for

advertiser-funded programming. He adds: ’You can continue to watch the

programme while looking for advertiser-related information. For

instance, an advertiser could run a DIY programme and while it’s

running, the interactive domain can carry more detailed product

information and point you in the right direction about where to buy it.

The programme runs in a window with the text around it. That combination

could be powerful.’



Greg Turzynski, a managing partner at Optimedia, argues that video

streaming - or rather the lack of it - isn’t the issue either. He

comments: ’I’ve long held the view that digital teletext could provide a

fantastic opportunity. It might be all people want in the way of

information - video streaming might be an irrelevant issue. It has

always surprised me that we haven’t seen more people exploring that

avenue. So I came away from the presentation feeling pretty upbeat. My

feeling was that I wouldn’t be surprised if Carlton Active is incredibly

successful at stimulating purchase. And then I realised that they can’t.

People can’t actually buy anything there and then. There’s no e-commerce

on the system. What you have is a glorified form of the old-fashioned

infomercial.



’Of course ONdigital has suffered in branding terms for offering less

and offering it later than Sky and Open. That’s undeniable. But our view

is that you should be prepared to try anything. Obviously there are lots

of questions we would like to ask of the system, such as about the

response levels you’re likely to get. The thing is that you won’t know

until you’ve tried it.’



Paul Parashar, the broadcast director of New PHD, points out that the

Open brand also has one or two downsides. He states: ’The good thing

about what Carlton is doing is that it’s out there trying to get us and

our clients involved. With Open, people tended to get the feeling that

they believed they were building a superstore, except this time it

wasn’t on the outskirts of Milton Keynes or wherever - it was on a

digital TV. So it tended to exclude a lot of people, including media

agencies. Carlton at least has managed to put a very public platform

together. Yes it has limitations, but don’t forget that Open has them

too.’



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

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).