The Interactive TV Forum in London brought together some of the leading players to discuss key issues faced in the field

The mood was one of cautious optimism, indicating a renewed confidence in interactive television and a growing maturity in the market boosted by an increased uptake of digital services.

The two day round table event organised by Osney Media was well summarised by John Holland, a former interactive television executive at the BBC, now with authoring tools company Ensequence. The following is an edited extract of his final presentation.

“A few years ago when I was at the BBC, I used to joke that interactive television was suffering from two digital diseases: Prestalgia, which is a deep longing for things which haven’t happened yet, and Vuja De, which is to say ‘I’ve no idea where I am but yes, this is a wholly familiar situation.’

Mercifully, there isn’t so much Vuja De around these days in the UK, but Prestalgia is still very much with us.

We also used to say that interactive TV departments were comprised of luvvies, nerds and suits. My sense is that we’re a bit more sophisticated than that today.

I believe we’ve seen that there is real recovery underway. There is healthy growth in DTV uptake. Over the next five years, satellite will remain the dominant digital platform, although its percentage share will shrink as digital terrestrial particularly and digital cable have an impact.

Choice and interactivity are arguably the defining characteristics of digital. We’ve had some fascinating insights into what kind of interactive TV propositions work and which ones don’t. A key observation is that it’s clear that for interactivity to work in a manner that is compelling to viewers, it must be integrated into a great editorial proposition. If the show is bad, you won’t make it good just by adding interactivity. You can’t pretty up a pig!

“Consistent with interactivity being a defining characteristic of digital TV, it is now becoming a fundamental part of viewers’ experience of broadcasting. Indeed, viewers now expect a range of experiences from their TV sets which were unheard of just a few years ago,” he said.

The success of Wimbledon tennis, Big Brother and the other high-profile programmes have demonstrated that if producers get the formula right viewers will take the opportunity to participate. We’re also seeing high volume, popular interactive shows based on re-usable templates.

It’s also clear that the best interactive TV programmes are those in which interactivity has been factored into the production process from the very beginning, from concept stage. Retro-fitting a level of interactivity to a linear show once its been made can have value, but the only way to realise the true potential of this medium is weave it into the very substance of the show, or the interactive advert, in an entertaining way.

And we’ve seen some very interesting developments at some of the biggest players on the iTV landscape. At the BBC, eTV has moved to the main TV department at Television Centre and significantly so have the budgets. Turner too has seen similar developments, as has Flextech.

“Interactive TV is coming of age. Of course, there’s still loads we need to learn, but it is no longer just about what the technology can deliver. It’s now about what producers want it to deliver. It’s about what turns viewers on.”

One of the debates that we’ve had over the past couple of days is whether interactive TV should be used to boost ratings or drive revenue. There isn’t an answer here that’s right for everyone. What’s right for one channel may not be appropriate for another. If your audience is children, you have to be very careful about inducing them to part with their money.

The truth is that interactive TV can deliver great ratings benefits, enhance channel stickiness, act as a powerful agent for brand extension and deliver new revenue streams. Again, it’s about iTV coming of age. Use it to do things which are right for you. Some channels charge for games, others give them away.

The fact is that increasingly some kind of interactivity is expected. But the nature of that interactivity is no longer in the hands of the techies, it’s now in the hands of producers, which is where it should be.

We had a fascinating discussion about content, applications and services and it’s clear that there are very significant developments in the areas of games, gambling, advertising and retail.

Will Harding of Sky stressed the degree to which betting is a particularly lucrative service to offer. He also underlined the contribution iTV can make to controlling call centre costs in a retail operation.

As our industry matures, we are learning what works and what doesn’t. Interactive TV is not yet the science that it should be, but it is becoming more scientific. There is a growing body of work which shows clearly that if the formula is right, the impact is great. Equally, and just as useful, there is another body of work which has demonstrated clearly what doesn’t work at all, or alternatively has demonstrated what works but with a diminishing level of return if it is overused. Voting for example, when it’s used for inconsequential matters rather that big events in which viewers feel involved.

We also had an interesting session looking at eTV, Participation TV and Mobile Interactivity. Again, we have a growing and increasingly clear understanding of what the essential elements for success are in certain genres of programming, and what are the most successful interactive TV genres. I’d embellish what we have heard these past two days and hazard a guess that aside from reality TV, games, gambling, quizzes, interactive advertising and retail, the list should include sport, news, factual and documentary, kids, consumer and sci-tech.

We also heard from a number of participants the importance of that old TV maxim: KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.

“This is television – essentially it’s an emotional entertainment medium and viewers will resist if they’re asked to do anything too complex.”

We had an important presentation from Ian Valentine of Sky, in which he underlined yet again that interactive TV is coming of age and stressed the importance of standards. IDTV is now an integral part of a multi-channel e-business proposition.

We had a great session on content creation and delivery for multiple platforms. The need in the industry for something which enables producers to create once and publish everywhere has been acknowledged for some time. During my time at the BBC, the costs involved in re-versioning for satellite, cable and terrestrial was often a showstopper. A powerful authoring tool which enables you to produce once and then publish to multiple platforms has much to recommend it, as indeed does a tool to manage that content.

We also had a very interesting exchange of views from Flextech’s Simon Gunning and Celador’s Bruce Vandenberg on content creation for multi-channel interactivity. Clearly, it’s important to get the interactive experience right for your target demographic group. Certain things will resonate with certain viewers. Others will simply fail. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in interactive TV. And as Bruce said, this requires serious investment.

We looked at Personal Video Recorders and the Connected Home. We examined how PVRs will change the way people interact with TV. I should say at this point that this is a huge subject – one worthy of an entire conference in its own right.

We had Mark Brown of Weapon 7 focusing on interactive advertising and participation, highlighting the benefits of targeting and segmentation of audiences that iTV can deliver and, in addition, the huge opportunities given to advertisers through increased consumer exposure to their brands. Interactive advertising is set to explode into a massive industry.

We heard from Peter Gutman of Video Networks who looked at Video On Demand and the impact of broadband on the digital home. After a period in the doldrums, it’s good to see things moving forward at HomeChoice with the unbundling of the local loop.

So there it is. The recovery is real, but probably still fragile and there is still a high level of caution. Nobody wants to repeat the mistakes of dot-bomb. Everybody weighs buying decisions very carefully. Cheque-books remain tantalisingly in purchasers pockets until the buying organisation is absolutely, totally and doubly sure that this is the right step to take. That can take time.

Major challenges remain. The threat to existing business models has been well aired. But I think it’s important that we keep a sense of proportion about all this. Technological innovation has always brought with it challenges. Television is the most important communications industry on the planet. Demand for moving pictures as a means of entertaining, educating and informing will remain.

As technology offers producers and viewers alike ever greater opportunities to manipulate, store, supplement and generally enhance the TV experience, there is of course a creative challenge and a challenge to business models. Nobody said this was going to be easy!”

John Holland is UK Sales and Marketing Director of Ensequence.

This edited extract from his presentation is published with permission.