NAB2002: iTV Still On The Radar

The NAB Super Session "Enhanced TV, Interactive TV, and Broadband," managed to fill Ballroom G at the Venetian Hotel starting at 7 a.m at this year's show. The early risers seemed optimistic about interactivity's future, but were cautious as to when it would actually be implemented en masse.

Pat Griffis, a DTV strategist at Microsoft, observed that "Interactivity is still a work in progress" riding on the coattails of the DTV transition. He described interactive delivery middleware as split into two camps, each based on a "field of dreams." One is PC-centric, building on C++ and Java. The other is Internet-centric, building on HTML and XML. Each is hoping that, once built, the hordes will come. What is needed, said Griffis, is a solution that will allow creators to write across all platforms.

Those themes were repeated again and again throughout the session. Michael McEwen, secretary general of the North American Broadcasters Association (NABA) and president of non-profit Canadian Digital Television, asked whether systems providers understood the business case and called for standards based on user requirements. "Current rollouts," he said, "are not a happy case either here or in Europe." Peter MacAvock, executive director of the DVB Project Office, said, "The uptake of interactive TV has been quite slow." He went on to observe that standards are an enabler, not a driver, which brings us to another major theme of the day. Put simply, it's the old clichZ "Content is King."

Exactly what that content will be is the subject of much debate. In another NAB session, Jim Carruthers of Norpak Corporation expressed his belief that "If you have to set down your beer, it's not a killer app." In the Venetian session, many seemed to be focusing their attention on the younger generation. What will be the impact of gameboys and other rug-top boxes? Collett Watson, vice president of Rogers Television and president and general manager of the Canadian Political Affairs Channel (CPAC), recalled that she had grown up glued to Gilligan's Island and Get Smart. "My children," she said, "don't spend any time in front of the TV, but they do spend lots of time on the computer."

So where will the killer apps come from? Most likely not the U.S. was the grudging conclusion of panelists, although PBS and the AFI-Intel Enhanced TV Workshop were acknowledged to be exceptions. The reason most often cited was that, for the most part, the bottom-line, shareholder-focused enterprises characteristic of the U.S. market don't foster innovation and experimentation.

Wendell Bailey, NBC's chief technologist for advanced broadband, noted that Europe's lead stems, at least in part, from the fact that much of the research on the continent is subsidized by the government. CPAC's Watson, whose channel is partially subsidized, noted that "R&D is easier where there are no shareholders involved." As one panelist put it, "We need a visionary to step over the line and spend some money here".

Glen Pensinger is a contributing writer for DigitalTV.

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National Association of Broadcasters

Norpak Corporation

North American Broadcasters Association

Rogers Television