The American Film Institute’s annual eTV workshop provides a useful barometer of the state of the union between interactivity and television, as informitv reports from Hollywood.

The AFI must certainly be congratulated on running these workshops in the Hollywood Hills, now in their seventh year, although they seem to attract the same faithful faces.

The format is similar to those run by the BBC and others towards the end of the last decade in the lead up to the launch of interactive services in the UK.

There was an evident attempt to innovate, while maintaining a sense of practicality with respect to available platforms. All of the selected projects represented realistic propositions rather than blue sky thinking.

However, while in the UK it has for some time been possible to be very clear about the target middleware for each mode of distribution, the immaturity of the US market was demonstrated by the range of platforms under consideration, from games consoles to OCAP set-top boxes.

The US market remains fragmented in terms of distribution, with no single dominant platform. It seems that everyone is waiting, the cable industry in particular, on DIRECTV to roll out the first multistream service before deciding whether to compete. DIRECTV appears to be backing NDS core and MediaHighway middleware, while their competitors Echostar currently employ OpenTV, as used by BSkyB in the UK.

The first day of the orientation event looked at where eTV is at the moment, mainly from a US and UK perspective.

Marcia Zellers, director of eTV at the AFI introduced the keynote from the BBC as “the world leader in interactive television with the biggest budget of any broadcaster in the world”.

Emma Somerville, head of interactive television programming at the BBC, presented ‘Lessons from a Small Island – Press the right button’, suggesting that creating good services is as simple as understanding the audience and their needs. Everything else is secondary. If, as she indicated, “80% of the UK audience have used interactive TV,” then Sky, the BBC and others are reaching numbers of interactive users that are unheard of in the US.

Presentations of enhanced television in the US ranged from emails being displayed as closed captions on CNN through to Disney’s Jetix Cards Live trading game on cable.

Echostar displayed the most mature single screen services, which looked very much like the OpenTV portfolios on TPS in France and BSkyB in the UK. Echostar’s Playin’TV and Showtime Interactive were the closest to the European model. Perhaps significantly, the service presented most proudly was the ability to order more channels with a single click.

Among the projects to be developed, there were no major players from the advertising industry or the traditional networks, but the west coast design and technology sector were well represented, together with some of the more altruistic public service programming.

Enhanced television was seen as a ‘nice to have’ without any real sense that it was relevant to the whole of America.

There is still some way to go to achieve any convergence of common platforms. The OCAP standard and the interim on-ramp specification will help with respect to cable, with some commentators talking about the possibility of OCAP for satellite, or as the Europeans like to call it, MHP.

However, as Shelley Palmer of Palmer Advanced Media concluded in his round-up of the state of nation: “50% of TVs do not and will never have a set-top box next to them in the US. People here do not like boxes next to their TVs.”

It seems that the American audience needs to be given some compelling reasons to change that perception. It remains to be seen whether the AFI projects alone will provide sufficient motivation.