MEDIA HEADLINER: Open boss targets interactive TV at the high street spender - James Ackerman hopes to revolutionise the way we use TV, Claire Beale writes

It might have seemed, for a while there, as though James Ackerman was destined not to see out the launch of Open. After all, when he joined the interactive TV company last year, he was the third chief executive in less than 12 months.

It might have seemed, for a while there, as though James Ackerman

was destined not to see out the launch of Open. After all, when he

joined the interactive TV company last year, he was the third chief

executive in less than 12 months.



A year ago, too, it might have seemed as though interactive digital

television was heading for less than sure-fire success. Apart from the

departed chief executives, Open’s also lost a number of other key staff

along the way, has spawned the necessary number of cynical critics

required for any media launch and experienced the requisite technical

hiccups.



So this week’s official launch - with both Ackerman and the company’s

reputation intact - may seem like triumph enough. Yet so long has been

this baby’s labour that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Open is

little short of a global trailblazer. At a time when so many of the

major media manoeuvres and technological advances happen overseas, the

launch of interactive television on this scale is a home-grown coup.



As Ackerman points out: ’Britain leads the rest of the world in moving

to digital TV and Open is proud to be leading the way.’ Ackerman may

have come through the last 12 months feeling a little older and a little

greyer, perhaps, but with the launch of a major TV revolution to his

name.



Ackerman, who claims that TV is in his genes - his mother was an

actress, his father a TV producer - is no stranger to the world of

multi-channel television. The American executive is a former head of

Sky’s joint venture channels, including Nickleodeon, Paramount, Granada

Sky Broadcasting, but getting a whole new medium off the ground is

pioneering stuff. Except that, of course, the Open pioneers are sifting

for gold in the full view of the broadcasting industry and Open’s

package of home shopping, banking and interactive entertainment launches

to more than a million homes from day one through the Sky Digital

system. This is one media launch that is impossible to ignore and

Ackerman says that Open’s launch is ’a significant moment in TV

history’.



But as with any new product the launch is simply the beginning of the

beginning. Nobody is really sure how many people will want to shop and

bank via their TV sets, how often and to what level of expenditure.

According to Nick Bryant, the commercial director of Open: ’There’s no

precedent for what we’re doing here, it’s a real leap of faith for

everybody.’



Yet there’s already evidence of interactive TV’s potential. Open has

been available to a limited number of homes for the past few months and

- before the advertising and promotions for the full service kicked in -

people were stumbling across the system and using it in encouraging

numbers.



During this soft launch, product sales via Open topped pounds 100,000,

with the Manchester United and Woolworths sites proving the most

popular. HSBC, which has a home banking service on Open, was registering

1,000 customers every couple of days, outstripping the performance of

the high street branches. The interactive game, Bedlam, generated more

than 60,000 entries to its competition.



Research from Millward Brown found people were visiting Open several

times a week and more than half of those who could access it during this

trial period did. Now that Open is fully operational and a pounds 17

million ad campaign from Ogilvy & Mather is endeavouring to ensure we

all know of its arrival, its usage is expected to soar.



So much so, in fact, that City analysts are already slavering over how

much this baby would be worth if - or rather, it seems, when - it floats

on the stock market. Open’s four founding partners - BSkyB, BT, HSBC and

Matsushita - are now looking at a potential valuation of around pounds

2.4 billion. And this despite the fact that Open’s trade marketing has

been a little lacklustre so far and there are still a number of gaps in

its portfolio of services - Next is the only high street fashion

retailer signed up, for example, and while Teletext is awash with

holiday firms, Open has just two .



Still, for market gap, read opportunity. And the lure of a million-plus

homes will continue to attract interest, while the launch of interactive

television itself could help drive the uptake of digital satellite.

What’s more, Ackerman insists that Open will become a generic for

interactive television and has not simply aligned itself with the

digital satellite platform. ’This is just the start of our journey - we

look forward to millions of people joining us in the future,’ he

adds.



THE ACKERMAN FILE

1983

Florida search and rescue team, coastguard

1987

Grey Entertainment, accounts supervisor

1991

The Family Channel, director of original programming

1992

Hearst Entertainment, vice-president of development

1994

A&E Television Networks, vice-president

1996

Sky Ventures, managing director

1998

Open, chief executive



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