Sex, of course, is number one by a long way but gambling pushes it
a close second, apparently. You have to say "apparently" because there
are no accurate measures of e-commerce activity on the web. By any
"guesstimate", porn is huge, worth trillions of e-commerce dollars each
year, largely through download charges. Gambling, though, is not to be
sniffed at - according to most estimates, it's worth billions and the
market is still growing rapidly.
So it's no surprise to find interactive TV companies looking for ways to
elbow in on digital betting - and, in theory, they are ideally placed to
clean up. Interactive TV and gambling, you could argue, were made for
Established bookmakers such as Ladbrokes already have their own online
presence but we may also see bookies becoming integral partners of
broadcasters in producing interactive programming in the broadcast
To take one no-brainer possibility, the broadcaster could carry racing
coverage with enhanced TV content provided via a firm of turf
There could be a panel down the side of the screen carrying runners and
riders and odds. A little judicious use of your remote and you could
back a horse, with the cash coming straight out of the subscription and
pay-per-view account you have with the platform provider.
This is not yet technically possible - but was obviously one of the
long-term possibilities being explored in recent joint venture talks
between BSkyB and Ladbrokes - and the fact that talks collapsed should
not be interpreted as a judgment on this market's potential. The two
sides took a raincheck because of the threat of an investigation by the
Competition Commission. They've since indicated that they will seek
alternative ways to structure a deal. Let's also not forget that BSkyB
already owns the bookmaking subsidiary Surrey Racing.
Dan Clays, an associate director of Quantum New Media, comments: "I
believe this is far from dead. The structure of the deal will need to be
rethought but it isn't dead. It's a good match - Sky's technology and
Ladbrokes' expertise. The necessity is to drive revenues per subscriber
using the digital infrastructure and gambling is essential to that."
And this isn't just about horseracing, or its diminutive cousin, "the
dogs". By sheer coincidence, Sky Sports and TwoWay TV unveiled an
interactive programming strand at the weekend that many believe is one
possible pointer to the way this market will develop. It's called Sky
Play and it was launched on Sky Sports Extra during coverage of Sunday's
Leeds United versus Chelsea side-show at Elland Road.
It was billed as a "pay-per-play" competition. You pay £1.50 to
enter via a premium phone line and then use your remote to predict the
outcome of various events throughout the match. There was a cash prize
for the best score. A slight modification in the system could allow each
prediction to be an online bet. And why stop there? Why not add a
gambling element to reality TV programmes such as Big Brother? Or to the
outcome of soap opera plots?
Perhaps, Chris Harrison, the managing director of the interactive TV
agency Spring Communications, says. He thinks there will be two distinct
markets that won't necessarily converge - the competition side of things
(such as Sky Play in its existing format) where people speculate on the
turn of events for fun, not necessarily because they want to win big
sums of money. And, on the other hand, the more hard-core gamblers.
He says: "In the first area there's a great opportunity for content
providers, enabling people who don't see themselves as gamblers to
But I can't see people actually putting money on which character shot
another character in a soap opera. I think gambling will remain focused
on content such as horseracing, the dogs and football."
On the other hand, though, the big bookmaking companies have long
recognised that if they are to expand they must widen their customer
base beyond the hard-core gamblers and even those who have the odd
flutter. And they have to extend to a wider range of cultural events.
Like, for instance, the Booker Prize. So, in that context, won't they
seek to monetise "outcome" games and competitions?
"It's possible," Harrison agrees. "The bookmakers do realise they have
to increase the propensity to bet. There's been a relaxing of
legislation too and the bookmakers have become more consumer marketing
aware. These days they use their shop windows to advertise simple bets
that everyone can understand."
Paul Parashar, the broadcast director of PHD, concedes it's almost
inevitable that we'll see more TV gambling opportunities of one sort or
another. He only hopes that this area is properly regulated and doesn't
detract from the quality of the programming.
At present, though, the Independent Television Commission is wary of
becoming involved in the messy issues raised by convergence. Parashar
states: "I just hope that advertisers are con-sulted. Of course,
companies such as Sky want to increase the amount of money they take per
subscriber and gambling could be one of the answers.
But, maybe, it will be a bit like when broadcasters flirt with porn -
they usually find they have to retreat. If it makes the whole
environment seedy, gambling will detract from the advertisers' messages
and that will be a problem. They'd have to find some way of keeping it
all within bounds."
Clays seconds that. He concludes: "When they look to take this forward,
I think they will have to take all sorts of ethical issues into account.
And no matter how big the potential market is, they will also have to be
aware that non-gamblers won't be too happy if their programmes start to
get interfered with."