NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON INTERACTIVE TV GAMBLING - Will interactive gambling be a financial hit for TV stations? Betting could open up new revenue streams for media owners, Alasdair Reid says

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

each other.



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

stream.



To take one no-brainer possibility, the broadcaster could carry racing

coverage with enhanced TV content provided via a firm of turf

accountants.



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

forecast outcomes.



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."