Archive for Monday, October 1, 2001

A new (tele)vision

Interactive TV delivers tailored programs, commercials

October 1, 2001


You're a huge "ER" fan, so you direct your TV to automatically tape each show on the chance you'll miss it plus give you regular updates on what's happening in the off-screen lives of the series' stars.

Or, just as Tiger Woods tees off on the crucial hole, the phone rings. You stop the live-action broadcast until you finish the conversation. Then, you tell the TV you want to zoom in on the ball's progress and watch it from the vantage point of the green.

Or you positively flip over the sequined, one-shoulder top Beyonce Knowles is wearing in the latest Destiny's Child video on MTV, so you click your remote control on it and, what the heck, the chain-link belt looped on Michelle Williams' hip huggers, too.

Instantly, you've bought items identical to those adorning the sexy singers. Without leaving your sofa.

Similar scenarios could be happening to you in the future, because a revolution in TV viewing is in its infant stages. There are a lot of technological bugs to work out, as well as widespread concerns about privacy protections, but the march toward "interactive TV" has begun.

Andy Beers, Microsoft's representative at a recent convention on digital entertainment, put it this way: "It's going to be huge," saying iTV, as it's called, will be "the most significant thing to happen to TV in its 60-year history."

Perhaps. The visions of iTV's future certainly are vast and varied.

The possibilities are

These are among the things on the drawing board or already possible:

l A TV programmed to suggest new programs you might like, based on the preferences you demonstrate by your daily viewing choices. You may have the capability to communicate with the host of a talk show, to instantly message friends watching the same program, to call up statistics for players or teams during a televised sports game, to get series synopses and info about actors, directors, writers and others involved in a show.

l TVs able to pause live broadcasts, record 35 hours of programming on a hard drive rather than videotapes, access e-mail, order pizzas and items seen on shows, such as the lamps on the end tables in a "Frasier" episode or a featured item on QVC.

l TVs that will send you commercials targeted specifically to your household, with, for example, a home with young children getting toy and detergent ads while that of a retired couple getting commercials for denture care and Depends. They will also allow parents to have far more control over the TV programming their children can tune in to.

l TVs that will deliver a movie, video magazine or even regularly scheduled network program to your home for viewing whenever you want.

l Personalized views close ups, wide angles, replays of such live events as sports games, parades, speeches.

Off to a slow start

So far, iTV has been moving at a snail's pace toward America's living rooms.

Cable and satellite TV companies are keenly interested in iTV's gee-whiz abilities, although the expensive upgrades needed to host the new capabilities have dimmed the cable industry's interest for now.

Also hampering development is the so-far lukewarm welcome consumers have given to the notion of paying more each month for the new technology.

Even so, Microsoft, AT&T;, AOL, Time Warner, News Corp., Cisco Systems, Procter & Gamble, Motorola and A.C. Nielsen all have iTV initiatives under way. Before the end of the year, computer chips enabling interactive technological leaps will be installed in some new Panasonic, Zenith and Daewoo TV sets.

AT&T; intends to conduct a test of interactive TV later this year by installing iTV software in the homes of 30,000 digital TV customers in the Aurora, Colo., area. The ability of marketers to target ads to individual households, and the degree to which those consumers like the service, will be studied.

Despite the slow start, industry analysts see great potential for iTV to become the wave of the future. Research firm Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that by 2005 iTV shopping programs alone will account for $3.4 billion in annual sales revenue. The total U.S. iTV-equipped audience could reach 50 billion by then. In Europe, more than 5 million already subscribe to an interactive sports broadcast via satellite.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for iTV are fears that the technology will compromise viewers' privacy. Those fears were fanned when one of the pioneers of interactive TV digital set-top provider TiVo found itself embroiled this year in criticism over its collection of data about viewing habits.

Then, in June, the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit privacy watchdog group based in Washington, blasted interactive TV developers as posing a significant and growing threat of "Big Brother"-like monitoring of users.

"Profiles that include one's age, discretionary income, parental status, along with psychographic and demographic data, will be collected, analyzed and made available to marketers, advertisers, programmers and others," the group charged in its report.

It raised the specter of marketers and advertisers keeping track of every TV show and ad watched and every click of the remote made by a household all without consumer knowledge, much less consent.

But the Association for Interactive Media, a trade organization of companies involved in iTV development, said any information collected would be in aggregate form, providing an overall picture of users but not one specific enough to identify individuals and households.

"They (won't) look at you as an individual, but rather as part of a focused group" so that "better content and advertising can be delivered," the organization said in a rebuttal to the anti-privacy charges.

Further, the group says that users will be fully informed about how any information that is collected will be used, and they will be given the option of not permitting such monitoring.

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