Interactive television could finally break through in the United States as cable and satellite operators come under pressure from online video. Some fifty million subscribers will be able to receive interactive television services this year, finally reaching a critical mass audience.
“This is the year for interactive television,” according to Dalen Harrison, the chief executive of interactive television software company Ensequence. “We’re seeing broad deployments with television networks going interactive.”
It is fair to say that every year for at least the last decade has been hailed as the year of interactive television in America, to the extent that the term has become largely devalued.
While satellite television operators have dabbled, the entrenched cable providers have been slow to embrace the technology.
Now, with initiatives such as the Tru2way platform, a Java-based standard derived from the European MHP specification, the cable companies are engaging with interactive television, with joint ventures such as Project Canoe that aim to offer targeted advertising.
Meanwhile, the Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format or EBIF is being offered as a lowest common denominator specification to represent multimedia pages using predefined widgets and procedural byte code.
EBIF is designed to work on the population of over 30 million legacy set-top boxes that incumbent cable operators have been reluctant to replace, as well as next-generation models being rolled out by new entrants.
Verizon is considering support for EBIF across its new fibre-optic network, which is capable of much more sophisticated services.
Despite, or perhaps as a result of, the dominance of cable television in America, interactive services are around five years behind those in Britain, where ironically most of the action has now moved on to the web.
Some observers suggest that the open standards of the web have enabled rapid development of services, while the more limited and proprietary specifications that have dominated interactive television have held back innovation.
Cable and satellite pay-television operators now risk being bypassed by other services that exploit the capabilities of the internet.
Televisions are now being shipped with internet ports, enabling them to connect directly to broadband. This does not address the issue of how to enable interactive channels, programmes and advertising.
While it has become popular to point to the decline of network television in general and its advertising model in particular, America is still the most valuable television market in the world and continues to attract huge audiences that overshadow anything online.
The recent Super Bowl drew its largest ever audience, with an average of 98.7 million viewers watching, an audience second in size only to that for the last episode of M*A*S*H which drew 106 million back in 1983, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The adverts during the Super Bowl, which have become a talking point in their own right, this year generated an estimated $200 million in revenue for NBC.
It could be some time before those adverts are all targeted and interactive, but every year that passes seems to bring it a year closer.