The general tone at the Interactive Television Forum in London was more self-critical and less self-congratulatory than at some conferences over recent years, suggesting a mood of pragmatic realism rather than idealism at what seems like a transitional period in interactive television.

Introducing the second annual Interactive Television Forum, William Cooper of informitv observed that some seven years after the launch of the first interactive services on digital television in the UK, there are around seven years before digital switchover will be complete. With digital viewers now in the majority, the potential for interactive services is greater than ever before, but there is a growing recognition that interactivity is no longer an interesting add-on; it has to support the core business of television.

Lorraine Heggessey, the former controller of BBC One, now chief executive of talkbackThames, the largest independent production company in the UK, spoke about the need for “simple, easy to use and fit for purpose red button narratives”. She admitted that although the interactive addition to Spooks, a drama series about MI5, has won several awards, including a BAFTA and a D&AD yellow pencil, it was not necessarily an audience success.

In a session on ‘seeing beyond the red button’, Ian Valentine, technical alliances director for Sky Interactive, talked about Sky’s plans to use WTVML to open up their platform to web services for e-business, allowing web content and service providers to gain a cost-effective presence on the Sky platform.

Sky is also looking at ways of optimising their platform, exploring technical opportunities to create a smoother user experience. There was the interesting revelation that the new high definition box will have a network port, perhaps providing an opportunity to break free from the limitations of a dial-up modem and take advantage of a broadband always-on return path.

Emma Somerville of the BBC reminded us that experience has shown that users really need very simple interfaces and said that the navigation hierarchies are becoming too complex. There was also view that the red button call to action has become overloaded, used inappropriately, leading to “red button blindness”.

The importance of customer relationship management was a recurring theme, with a recognition that programme makers and broadcasters, as opposed to platform operators, have not really had to deal with customers directly before.

The conference heard that UKTV is using interactive surveys to sample opinions about what their audiences want from interactive services, an idea that could perhaps be extended to programmes, if programme makers have the confidence to listen to their audience.

The importance of creating user-centric interactive programming, and building this in from the start as an integral element of the central creative idea was emphasised by several case studies.

There was an evident tension between a perceived need to justify the return on investment through direct consumer revenue, and a wider, more strategic approach to support the television medium. For many, it was apparent that immediate commercial objectives were the priority.

In terms of a return path that can be consistent across all platforms, the general consensus was that mobile was the way forward, at least for the moment, with 3G networks also seen as an exciting opportunity for rich media delivery.

The main barriers to the adoption of interactive services were seen as the cost of securing platform agreements and insurance, the difficulty in acquiring interactive rights, and a general view that the technology is still too ‘clunky’. It was observed that the timelines of software production still do not align with the last-minute culture of television, and that the old structures of television management, led primarily by programme makers, who may not have a direct concern with the bottom line of business results, may no longer be appropriate.

The Creative Challenge, a practical exercise to see if it was possible to produce an interactive prototype in a day, was completed well before the deadline, providing a powerful demonstration for event sponsor Ensequence that authoring tools significantly accelerate the creative process.

For direct revenue opportunities, the main money seems to be on gaming and gambling, although the latter represents more of a challenge in the United States.

Richard Cass of Sky Interactive outlined the thinking behind Sky’s plans for the second interactive card slot, with the launch of their own branded credit card. It’s clear that they have given this some considerable thought. It seems their card is most likely to live in the wallet, rather than the set-top box. Other possibilities include loyalty schemes and personalised persistent storage.

Interactive television advertising has come a long way, as demonstrated by case studies from Weapon7, Zip Television and BBC Broadcast, but it still has a long way to go. This year the prestigious D&AD awards included a category for interactive advertising for the first time, but the famous yellow pencil was given to a campaign that eschewed interactive technology. Nevertheless, there seems to have been a notable improvement in the creative approach to interactive campaigns.

Notably absent at this event was ITV, the main commercial television network in the UK, where the internal tensions between supporting programming, interactive advertising and sponsorship, and direct revenue opportunities associated with services such as betting, seem most evident.

Immediately following the news that BT is teaming up with Microsoft to launch a broadband video service, there was general recognition that broadband and on-demand services offered new opportunities for interactive television. Video Networks already offers its HomeChoice service in London, and the BBC and Channel Four are beginning to embrace broadband as a significant new medium of distribution.

There appeared to be a feeling that the television industry and interactive television sector in the UK has become transfixed by the coming threats and opportunities of new platforms such as broadband and on-demand services.

The emergence of IPTV, internet protocol television, has without doubt been one of the most important developments in the field of interactive television over the last year. The jury is still out, but billions are being bet on the outcome.

There is a lot to learn from the UK’s interactive television experience, but there is a strong sense that the real revolution in digital television has yet to come.

Organised by Osney Media, The Interactive Television Forum 2005 took place on 29-30 June at One Whitehall Place in London.