The Interactive Television Conference organised by Broadcast was primarily aimed at the production community and provided a clear message to leave the technology to the experts – the broadcasters and the platform operators – and concentrate on the creative proposition.

It must be conference season. You know how it is. You wait ages for an interactive television conference and then two or three come along at once. It’s a scheduling problem, as the proximity of two similar events in time and place seemed to split the available audience, particularly since many of the names involved could also be seen elsewhere on the conference circuit.

Nevertheless, the Interactive Television Conference, organised by the UK weekly publication Broadcast, combining presentations with an informal discussion format, seemed to elicit rather more candid comments than polished public relations pitches, reflecting an honest, yet optimistic view of interactive television.

Peter Cowley of Endemol admitted that “Initially interactivity was purely an editorial device to get people involved in the show. Then we discovered we could actually make money out of it.”

“You’ve got to start by recognising what you want to use interactivity for,” he said.

The use of interactive elements remains a production choice, with half the shows produced by Endemol having no interactivity. The real revenue potential remains with telephone and text voting, rather than interaction through the remote control, but ultimately the return generated relates to the size of the audience. “You’ve got to engage the audience at the end of the day.”

Representing the BBC, Emma Somerville observed that “Interactive television is now mainstream. There is starting to be an expectation among the audience that certain types of programme are going to have interactivity.”

“It’s no longer R&D, it’s about making it a mature and robust business,” she said.

Emma outlined the BBC’s strategy for interactive television, which is primary to support channel and genre objectives, with the intention of making programmes more enjoyable, more memorable, encouraging the audience to stay longer and making the BBC appear more modern. Good interactive propositions, she stressed, integrate interactivity from the outset, are essentially simple and focus on the needs of the audience, whether it is about greater choice or playing along with the show. She also outlined the commissioning process and encouraged the production community to come forward with ideas, while emphasising that these must be driven by the commissioning of the linear programme.

Adrian Pilkington of Sky emphasised that “interactivity should add a new perspective,” by offering choice, through additional audio or video feeds, providing a deeper or extended programme experience, offering highlights and previews, influencing outcomes through participation or enabling viewers to play along at home. “Interactivity can generate revenue,” according to Adrian “but there are only a handful of programmes that can generate significant revenue” and ultimately ratings are key, given plenty of supporting evidence that interactivity increases viewer commitment. According to a McKinsey report, loyalty to a programme will increase if 5% of the audience is interacting.

Adrian was keen to encourage more interactivity on the Sky One entertainment channel and argued that interaction can still be successfully applied as a programme support and marketing tool to acquired shows, such as 24, although it is more difficult to prove a link between such enhancements and viewership. Sky also plans to apply bring live interaction, as used on the fixed odds gaming show Sky Vegas Live, to a higher rating channel such as Sky One.

Adrian argued that Sky is able to provide the technology and that this is the responsibility of the broadcaster rather than the independent producer, saying “there is little money in the value chain in developing applications”. On the Sky platform in the UK alone there are around forty different versions of set-top boxes to support. While Sky currently provides services that work across all these boxes, Adrian said “we will be delivering more and more to the more performant set-top boxes”.

“I’m struck by how little independent production companies really understand about interactivity,” he added.

Recognising the technical complexity involved, Adrian suggested that producers should talk their ideas through and develop them with those that are knowledgeable about the practical considerations before pitching their proposals.

Rights and responsibilities
Bruce Vendenberg, who recently left Celador to establish his own Interactive Rights Management organisation, agreed that “There are only very few companies that are in a position to come with the whole package”. In the past, interactive rights have been negotiated separately but he made the point that these should be agreed at the same time as the programme rights. It is not just a question of any revenue split, but also of rights and responsibilities, and agreement over the details of deliverables and ownership, control and exploitation, and crucially, who can make decisions.

“Its not a big enough cake to fight over,” he suggested. According to Bruce, it is very difficult to make money from enhanced television, because of the relatively high costs of entry, but if you can successfully create a television brand and leverage that equity off-screen, on mobile platforms, on the web and in standalone games, “you can make serious amounts of money”.

Simon Gunning, controller of interactive at Flextech, who is moving over to Celador, echoed a key theme that emerged from many contributors during the day, that producers should get the broadcaster to work with the technology companies, saying “If you’re a producer you should have as little as possible to do with the technology.”

Cassian Harrison of Lion Television, spoke of a “new grammar,” taking the language of video games and applying it to television. While sport and news lend themselves very easily to interactivity, other genres, such as drama can be more problematic.

Andrew Thompson of BBC Sport was still revelling in the success of the Olympics, which he saw as “a perfect vehicle for interactivity,” which “genuinely worked as a package – a shared production experience”. He went on to say that there was still further to go. “I would argue that sport can learn from every other genre, and what we have to do over the coming years is work with one another in co-productions that might provide the next generation of content.”

Martin Freeth, a television producer and director who founded the BBC Multimedia Centre back in 1995, a forerunner of the current New Media division, pointed to the long gestation period for interactive television, observing that the idea for Wimbledon interactive had been around in the BBC for many years before it came to fruition and won a BAFTA.

Casey Harwood of Turner said they are currently putting a lot of emphasis on how viewers will watch television in five or six years time. “The sort of stuff that’s keeping us awake at night is PVRs and the important thing for us is what role interactive will play in this new environment.”

While optimistic about the potential revenue from games, particularly when extended to mobile phones, Casey argued “revenue is not going to move our business, but loyalty is.” Turner has found that enhanced television is very useful in promoting loyalty and making programming and channels more attractive to advertisers and platform operators, who pay for their programmes.

“The UK is light years ahead,” he said. “The UK is the home of interactive TV and Turner in the US looks at the UK as a little laboratory”.

Casey referred to NBC’s Olympics service, saying “The penny’s starting to drop that this thing works”. “As soon as the US gets it then the investment will flow and we can benefit.” Meanwhile in the UK, Turner is investing £20m to bring their playout in-house to help them exploit this new television environment. In the US they are creating a 3G network on their own campus to enable them to run trials. He said that it required a massive leap for producers to suddenly start thinking in a different way, saying “The smart way of doing it to team up with people who own the platform and have the billing relationship and the customer relationship. Producers have to understand the food chain.”

International perspective
Miriam Segal of Tailor-Made, an independent production company that is currently developing an interactive quiz show format for international production, acknowledged “The majority of international commissioners have not got the faintest idea about interactivity”. Observing that the technology is very different from country to country, she suggested that producers “talk conceptually not technically”.

Claire Tavernier, who is responsible for interactive at Fremantle, spoke engagingly about the reality of interactive television outside the UK, citing the lack of a return path being a particular problem. Even in the UK, voting through the set-top box only represents around 5% of votes cast, with the majority coming via telephone. Claire noted that the US market, which has experimented with two-screen applications combining television and the web, is finally thinking about integrated interactivity. She is convinced that if the American market grows, others will follow. Having added text voting to American Idol, she thinks it will still be a couple of years before it is possible to provide an integrated application. An interactive Family Feud is now available in America, although she joked that “admittedly as far as we understand only North Hawaii can access it”.

Elsewhere in Europe, there is increasing interest in interactivity beyond basic telephony, particularly from public broadcasters. France is currently the second largest market for interactive services, but Claire noted that it is only very recently that synchronous applications have been launched alongside standalone services such as news, sport, weather and games.

Interactive quiz and game shows, which make up a significant part of the Fremantle portfolio, can exploit the basic desire to play along. Early experience with the Fifteen to One format with Two-Way TV in the UK suggested that pensioners were as likely to play along as students, and what was important to them was not so much the winning as the taking part. Echoing the emerging theme of the conference, Claire said “You really don’t want to get involved in technology” but should instead “focus on getting the creative right and let someone else worry about the technology”.

The Interactive Television Conference was organised by Broadcast and held at Le Meridien Piccadilly in London on 30 September 2004.