Interactive TV: One Ad, Many Formats - Diverse technology may diminish the appeal of interactive TV, Jim Davies says

The promise of interactive advertising is almost too good to be true. Interactive advertisers, we’re told, will be able to build super-accurate, information-rich profiles of their customer base and, armed with this ammunition, offer them products and services they can’t refuse.

The promise of interactive advertising is almost too good to be

true. Interactive advertisers, we’re told, will be able to build

super-accurate, information-rich profiles of their customer base and,

armed with this ammunition, offer them products and services they can’t


Viewers will be able to zap-request information or brochures, enter

competitions, arrange for a salesperson to call, or buy items over the


That may be good news for punters, but it’s even better news for

manufacturers and service providers. It means that traditional

prime-time TV advertising will, finally, be recognised as the

blunderbuss that it is, wildly spewing out shot in the hope of hitting a

few relevant consumers. In the interactive future, agencies won’t have

to be nearly so profligate to hit their targets, and clients may start

to feel that they’re getting value for money.

But there are many issues that need to be resolved before interactive

television becomes a real threat. The rate of take-up of digital

television services and the immense cultural shift of having a new,

proactive relationship with the box in the corner of the front room are

the first hurdles that have to be overcome. It’s just a matter of time,

media watchers say. The enthusiasm with which advertisers such as

Domino’s Pizza, WH Smith, Carphone Warehouse and Iceland have embraced

Open, the UK’s first interactive TV channel, would seem to bear this


But there’s another, seemingly less surmountable challenge facing the

industry - the problem of rival operating systems. All three of the

major digital players - BSkyB, ONdigital and the various cable operators

- have different software systems in place for interactivity. Open TV

works through Sky’s set-top boxes in this country, a system also used by

Canal Plus in France and a handful of US operators; ONDigital uses

MHEG-5 technology for its menu screens; while the more secretive cable

companies are believed to use technology based on super-powered HTML,

the most widely used internet technology. When BT enters the fray with

its broadband technology, there will be yet another alternative.

In practice, this means that if advertisers want to place icons, further

information or call-through facilities on their interactive

advertisements, they have to go through the tedious, costly process of

creating different executions for each distribution channel.

’Transcoding jobs is boring and expensive,’ warns Anthony Lillie,

managing director of the new media and digital production consultany,

Magic Lantern. ’Advertisers will tend to look at which option reaches

the right demographics for them.’

’We see it as an opportunity,’ says Betherez Erez, vice-president of

NDS, which has been developing interactive applications for its News

Corporation parent. ’But I can see that it might be a problem for

content providers, including advertisers,’ she says. In response to

industry anxieties, NDS has been working on interactive solutions that

will be able to work across several platforms, which they could supply

to interested parties, as well as tools that would allow clients to

modify ads themselves. ’Until the industry shakes down, there are no

easy answers,’ Erez admits.

As for content and features, advertisers will have to mix and match the

rival platforms’ capabilities carefully, to avoid having to create

separate ads for each. ’Some features are comparable and compatible,

others are not,’ Erez says. ’Each offers different interactive features,

so you have to weigh up your options.’ Even so, she’s confident that

this situation won’t last for too long. ’In this industry, standards

develop quickly - at present there’s a technological vacuum and a need

to fill it,’ she says.

’We’ll find these are interim technologies,’ Lillie says. ’Further down

the line there won’t be these kinds of compatibility problems. Having

said that, there’s plenty of money to be made from interim technologies.

If you think about it, the vinyl LP was an interim technology.’


Interactive advertising and the internet have a confused and slightly

contradictory relationship. Open TV’s offering is basically a

pared-down, simplified version of the kind of interactivity that web

users are already familiar with, and forthcoming interactive channels

are expected to follow suit. Most industry watchers believe clients will

use the medium to exploit e-commerce and home shopping opportunities as

well as strategic branding.

The main difference is that interactive television will be meat and

drink to C2D consumers; in other words, serious catalogue shoppers.

The similarity doesn’t stop there. Bruce Lynn, the network solutions

group manager of Microsoft Web TV, is convinced that as far as

production technology is concerned, ’web standards are the way forward.

Anything deviating from that is going down a cul-de-sac.’ He adds that

there has already been so much investment in HTML and XML, the web

programming languages, that it would be a travesty not to consolidate on

that. ’It involves a far lower marginal cost than starting from

scratch,’ he reasons.

Both Sky and ONdigital set-top boxes contain modems, which will allow

customers e-mail facilities, so technically there would be no problem

logging on to the internet. While this may be seen as a valuable extra

to viewers, to broadcasters and advertisers it’s a potential


Imagine you’re watching the first ad in the break - a car


You want to know more, so you click on an active website address on the

screen and you’re off surfing. The channel has lost a viewer, as have

subsequent advertisers in the break. How the internet and interactive TV

resolve this issue remains to be seen.

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