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
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
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
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.’