US satellite broadcaster DIRECTV has been patiently putting its interactive television platform in place, following the lead of fellow News Corporation controlled company BSkyB in the UK. Tyler Slocum, director of advanced services and content at DIRECTV explains their plans for the future.

“About two years ago I was one of about four people left in Advanced Services at DIRECTV,” he told delegates at an interactive television advertising conference in London. “Our management at the time told us to basically go in our offices, not push any buttons and wait for News Corp to show up.”

Over the next two years, DIRECTV began the migration from a legacy network with a mix of different set-top box models to build a platform based on middleware from News Corporation subsidiary NDS.

“Two years ago, we said what we needed was a common remote. We needed to have interactive services across all our platforms, whether you had a DVR or a basic receiver. Prior to this we had about 120 different set-top boxes in our network. Our whole strategy was just to unify across our platform.”

The DirectTV Advanced Services group now has around sixty staff dedicated to interactive services, including producers, designers, coders and an internal quality assurance team.

DIRECTV now has a single interactive advertising channel dedicated to long and short-form material. This twenty-four hour channel provides a Dedicated Advertiser Location, or DAL, accessible from conventional spots and through the electronic programme guide. This can be programmed like any other channel, in thirty-minute or one-hour increments, available to advertisers by the week. Advertisers can also link to the channel directly from banners in the DIRECTV Active service.

Daimler Chrysler was the first advertiser to appear on the platform in October 2005. Towards the end of the year, DIRECTV was first able to capture opt-in customer data through an interactive application and the company recently launched a one-touch fulfilment campaign for Dodge.

DIRECTV has created an advertising development partner programme with the goal to develop, test and deploy new advertising tactics with clients. They will benefit from being the first to be able to adopt new advertising approaches. Partners due to launch campaigns later this year include Procter and Gamble and Bank of America.

Although the UK has had interactive advertising for over five years, it remains a nascent market in the US.

“There are some clients that are very savvy. They are sending their media buyers and saying you must deliver interactive,” Tyler observed. “There are others that are still clueless about the whole experience.”

“Anybody that’s doing interactive in the US right now does a lot of touring. You tour around the different clients. You explain what it is. You wait. You go back and explain it again. There’s a lot of learning and a lot of awareness that needs to be driven in the US.”

After initially relying on in-house skills, DIRECTV is now actively looking to work with external partners to increase throughput.

“I’m really looking for third parties that can bring advertisers and parties that have content with them,” Tyler told informitv. He is also interested in working on projects that include the EchoStar Dish network and cable companies to achieve a cross-platform solution as part of an integrated media strategy, saying: “I’d love to do a test in that area and work with different providers.”

As with Sky in the UK, DIRECTV is seeking to provide advertisers with more accurate reporting on actual usage. It is in the process of deploying iVideoGuard software from NDS which provides secure reporting back directly from the set-top box. This is currently delivered over the dial-up return path. DIRECTV now requires that all new DVRs are plugged into the phone line. Future high-definition recorders will support a broadband connection.

The company is already getting some data back from viewers. The next step will be to have a third party to validate the data and manage a viewer panel. That could be Nielsen or Taylor Nelson Sofres. TNS is currently working with BSkyB to support its Sky View panel.

Having supported digital video recorders from Microsoft Ultimate TV and TiVo since the year 2000, in November 2005 DIRECTV launched its own DVR with NDS middleware and later in 2006 it will launch a high-definition version.

“I really think that this is where we’re going to focus as soon as we get everything launched,” said Tyler. The current 160GB DVR includes additional space for over 50 hours of material. “So we have a lot of space on there for push content, with short and long-from advertising.”

One model involves linking from a spot commercial to a longer form video, known as telescoping. “We’re working on the telescoping capabilities right now,” Tyler said. “We’re also looking at pause and fast forward banners. We’re exploring all of those concepts right now.”

Whether viewers will want to click through to longer adverts, or will object to intrusive banners when skipping other commercials is naturally another matter. A more promising approach, perhaps, is enabled by providing access to relevant material at their convenience.

The new high-definition digital video recorder will be broadband enabled, an increasingly common approach with satellite platform operators.

“There are over five million DIRECTV subscribers right now with broadband already in their house,” according to Tyler. “You can plug this new DVR into whatever provider you have. This will allow us to augment our satellite content delivery.”

“We’re planning a trial right now with our video-on-demand service. We’re going to have around 2,000 hours initially of VOD content. So basically you pull that content to your hard drive and watch it from your hard drive. And providing a robust return channel will be great for our network.”

In the mean time, there appears to be an opportunity to work with partners on expanding the interactive television advertising market. “I want to focus our team on innovation, on the DVR and broadband initiatives, and really partner with the right third party that can bring us all these relationships,” Tyler suggests. “I really see them as part of this integrated strategy.”