The Producers Guild of America hosted a session at NAB on emerging interactive media that aimed to explore and bridge the gap between content and technology.

Brian Seth Hurst, chairman of the PGA New Media Council moderated the discussion. He is recognised on the conference circuit as a prominent and enthusiastic ambassador for interactive television.

Some of the most impressive interactive television work in the States has been produced under the auspices of the American Film Institute enhanced television workshop, which was responsible for the creation of some of the examples demonstrated.

Dale Herigstad of Los Angeles agency Schematic presented an impressive demonstration of an interactive version of Battlestar Galactica. A concept piece produced on DVD, it was intended to demonstrate the capabilities of an interactive application targeted at an X-Box. Using a spatial interface driven by simple cursor navigation, it employed smooth transitions to provide a rich immersive media environment.

David Jensen of Zetools introduced the term ‘composite media’ which is perhaps just another name for rich media. Noting that broadband is bringing broadcast expectations to online services, he presented two examples of interactive applications. A version of ABC’s Celebrity Mole targeted at a Windows XP Media Centre employed a combination of Flash and broadcast television to provide a seamless combination of online and off-air media. Another example for Bloomberg Television aimed to provide a broadband web portal with parity experience to interactive television. Both applications were built on web technologies such as XML and authored using Zetools commercial software tools.

Rick Mandler of the Walt Disney Internet Group explained that commercial considerations had required him to concentrate on delivering a synchronous ‘two screen’ experience on both TV and the PC as the hardware necessary for an integrated single screen application has not been generally deployed in America. He demonstrated The View, a talk show produced in association with Johnson & Johnson employing synchronous questions and answers delivered using the Wink software platform.

Daniel Goldscheider demonstrated a very different approach to interactivity combining computer telephony integration with radio services. His company YES Network was originally started to monitor music played on radio and television and currently monitors 2500 radio stations across America in real time to enable rights holders to be reimbursed with royalties. Employing voice recognition and VXML scripting enables sophisticated interaction between a caller dialling a premium rate number and a computer. The system can be used to order CDs identified by tracks played on air, or to enable virtual conversations between an artist and a member of the audience. This lateral approach to interactivity provides an apparently viable business model that is only requires the user to have a telephone and is thus not dependent upon any set-top box middleware.

Alan Schulman of Brand New World presented what he called ‘addressable advertising’. He observed that “Nothing scares advertisers more than feeling that they have lost touch with their consumers.” As a result of the proliferation of networks, fragmentation of the broadcast audience and escalating advertising spot costs combined with reduced ratings, he proclaimed “The old model doesn’t work any more.” His proposal was a form of ‘intellispot’ commercial that edits itself to fit the demographics of a city, customises itself to fit the programming or reacts to market conditions. Simply by using automated versioning and file transfer delivery allows a commercial to be customised according to where the execution is going to run, in this instance to change captions based on geography or target audience. Although initially only available at affiliate station level, in the future this approach could be applied at district or even individual household granularity. Once again, this demonstrates that the delivery of dynamic media is not necessarily dependent upon the set-top box.

While these demonstrations may appear impressive, they have yet to be widely deployed. The lack of a single dominant interactive platform to date in the US has limited these experiments either to proof of concept pieces or compromise ‘two screen’ experiences. However, this has also led to producers looking beyond the current state of the art to imagine how interactive media might work in a more ideal world. It will be interesting to see how the deployment of interactive services on satellite in the States will change the perception of interactive television as a mainstream medium.