NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON CARLTON ACTIVE - What's the game plan for ITV's interactive experts?

Was it just a matter of time before Carlton Active faced closure, Alasdair Reid asks.

According to some observers, the surprising thing about Carlton Active was not so much that it was killed off at such a promising phase of the interactive TV industry's evolution but that it survived so long in the first place.

It was Carlton Communications who introduced us all to the notion of the "publisher broadcaster" - the TV company without TV studios, where almost all the craft skills you need to get moving pictures up on screen are "outsourced" and all the broadcaster does is supply central management, ad sales teams and bean counters.

The thing about Carlton Active was that it attempted to do everything, including production. So perhaps Carlton Communications was reverting to type when it handed redundancy notices to all 26 employees last week, including the chief executive, Jane Marshall. And that, observers say, is another irony. Because Marshall had just concluded a series of long and delicate negotiations that will now enable ITV to take its greatest leap forward where interactive TV is concerned - she was instrumental in getting the deal that allows ITV to run enhanced programming and interactive ads on the Sky Digital platform.

But, of course, the axe wielding was not merely down to Carlton. It has to be seen in the context of a possible Carlton-Granada merger and the decision by network bosses to set up a single interactive resource for the whole of ITV.

The new unit will also absorb Granada's interactive department - though this is hardly a big deal because this Granada operation was scaled back last year. Marshall will be invited (as will all of Carlton Active's former staff) to apply for a job at the new division.

This amounts to something less than a thumping pat on the back for Marshall and some say that the internal politics will, all other things being equal, favour Justin Judd, Granada's interactive controller, in the race for the top job.

The process is being managed by Ian McCulloch, Granada's operations director.

He comments: "We're at the stage where we've produced job specs and advertised the roles. It will be a small group that outsources and project manages each of the projects that we seek to deliver. The job at the centre is to make sure it all works and goes to air. From an advertising point of view, it will be their responsibility to see that there are standard templates - in much the same way that there is a set process for conventional airtime."

And he adds: "It's our role to tell people that it has to work on this server, that it needs the following triggers, that it has to have a common functionality and that it needs compliance. But it is not our job to produce it. The Granada philosophy was that we stick to what we're good at - and that is not software. We provide the pipeline but we are not into cutting code."

The sales side of what Carlton Active used to do (selling interactive advertising and devising ways of involving advertisers in enhanced programming formats) has now been absorbed by Carlton Sales - and will eventually transfer to the merged ITV sales operation when (or if) it finally emerges.

But all this tinkering can't be good for ITV's interactive prospects, can it? Paul Longhurst, a managing partner of The Allmond Partnership, says it's all rather unfortunate. He states: "Carlton Active has done a fantastic job in interactive television as far as ITV as a whole, not just Carlton, is concerned. It created the breakthroughs for the network and it is a great shame that it has closed, especially at this stage.

On the other hand, I don't think ITV's efforts will be held back for too long - and the market is really beginning to wake up to the value of interactive programming both from an enhanced TV content point of view and from an advertising point of view."

And some observers are less than charitable about Carlton Active. The company's core skill-sets were to do with ITV Digital and based on a system language called MHEG. ITV Digital is now long gone, of course, and though MHEG is still relevant to the digital terrestrial platform that has superseded ITV Digital - Freeview - there was little contact between Carlton Active and the BBC units charged with developing enhanced TV content. A missed opportunity, given that there were many avenues they could have explored to their mutual benefit.

Carlton Active sources have tended to argue that they can do anything asked of them on any of the platforms. This, unfortunately, was not how the marketplace tended to see it.

And in any case, whatever you think of Carlton Active, it surely makes sense in the long run to have one central interactive point of contact for the whole ITV network. Of course, Andrew Howells, the founder of the interactive TV consultancy Zip Television, agrees: "They're right in pursuing the Granada as opposed to the Carlton model. They need a department of maybe five people who interface with those who produce programming and look at the commercial potential of enhancing it," he says.

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