This time last year, you did not have to be a dangerously radical visionary to predict that digital interactive television was going to be one of the major media themes of 2000. Media owners were backing their commitment to the future with major investment plans. Agencies were excited at the prospect of playing with these new boxes of tricks. And advertisers, if you believed some of the stuff they came out with at conferences, seemed up for it too.
True, there have been many firsts this year, especially on Open. Hardly surprising as Open, the interactive service for the Sky Digital platform, is the only widely available interactive platform actually running or, at the very least, walking very briskly. This year, it cemented its partnerships with the retail and banking partners that now inhabit Open's virtual mall. And it facilitated the UK's first interactive ad on behalf of Unilever's Chicken Tonight, which allowed viewers to click through from a TV commercial on Sky Digital to an advertiser domain.
It's also true that there have been major, if sporadic, flurries of activity on rival platforms. The latest came last week, with restructuring initiatives at NTL. And ONdigital, which was, initially, slow to realise that interactivity was going to be important, signalled its intention to catch up and has appointed Matthew Seaman, previously the company's director of sales and business development, to director of interactivity. Meanwhile, Open was unveiling a transactional programming partnership with Harrods.
It all helps to keep the pot boiling. But has the interactive TV market lived up to expectations this year? And if not, why not? Nigel Sheldon, the managing partner of mdigital, MindShare's interactive unit, believes it all depends on what the expectations were. He says: 'It was always going to be governed by the possible in terms of the technology - and cable failed to deliver on many of its interactive and digital targets this year. Open started off by focusing on getting its content providers on board - its partners in the banking and retail sectors. Interactive advertising wasn't a priority. Advertisers had to confront the technical aspects to understanding audience behaviour and being able to evaluate this type of advertising. They also have to decide whether it's appropriate in terms of creative strategies.'
Are advertisers guilty of being too cautious? Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, says: 'This year has been about lots of conversations but very little delivery - which is always understandable when you're dealing with new technology. We're obviously interested in how it affects the mass market - because consumers don't always behave in the way that the technology wants them to or the media owners think they should. I suspect consumers don't want too much choice in their lives, and I'm not sure they want to surround themselves with devices that require you to engage with everything.'
But surely advertisers should be experimenting? Perhaps, Cleaver says.
'The truth is that the marketing to decision-makers has not been that good. Agencies have not been pushing it that hard either because it involves messy icons and logos that creatives don't feel comfortable with. It tends to be pushed off on to specialist people. And it's not cheap, especially when you consider how many TV ratings you'd have to divert. It would imply a colossal cost in the brand plan and that's before you begin to consider how expensive the whole production protocol will be. One of the main problems in assessing this is that there are few case studies. Advertisers need reassuring. It will be interesting to see how objective criteria are developed.'
But isn't this a classic chicken and egg situation? There won't be many case studies until more advertisers start experimenting with this. Nick Bryant, the sales director of Open, agrees that the activity that we have seen so far is encouraging. 'Obviously Chicken Tonight was extremely successful,' he says. 'Since then, it has been getting more sophisticated, both in terms of the technology and functionality and in terms of the creativity and advertising know-how applied to that.'
An ad on a digital Sky TV channel can offer click-through to an advertiser domain that delivers further branding messages and technical information, plus promotional material such as games and competitions or the facility to order a brochure. And then you can click through even further to one of Open's partner retailers such as Argos and Comet. The system will deliver you to the appropriate product zone so you can purchase there and then.
Bryant adds: 'People are already pushing at the edges and the next step will be a more sophisticated approach from FMCG advertisers. Asda joins us (as a retail partner) next year and you will be able to go from an ad to buying the product. People forget that we haven't begun to promote this yet. Interactive advertising started on one channel and it's been rolling out across all the Sky Digital channels. In the New Year, we hope to roll it out across other broadcasters. We have been testing it all the way, measuring the number of calls we can manage and the type of response from different types of ads and different types of offers. We're going through a learning process too. This year it has been a fringe thing but I think it's very clear that next year interactive advertising will go mainstream.'
Next year? David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, has been responsible for a large proportion of the interactive campaigns running this year. He thinks it might take a little longer - and he's not at all surprised at how slow the market is in developing. He states: 'It's only the true evangelists that have been able to persuade people to do things.
It requires a new approach. It's about asking things of consumers rather than telling them things. And because they are in an environment they can easily navigate out of, entertainment is much more appropriate than on the web. There must be a benefit and a reward.
'All the indications are that the TV set will become the biggest interactive device in the home. But the interactive advertising industry is concerned that it's all geared to the web, which is an intermediate technology.
Internet agencies struggle either to stimulate response or convey brand values via internet advertising and they feel that that's going to be the same with interactive TV. They don't understand brands in the way that advertising agencies do. The market will take off - maybe the year after next - but people will have to realise that it is different to the web.'