The future of interactive TV: A view from the front lines in the UK

At NDS we have often heard the opinion expressed that the UK leads the field in interactive television development and deployment. In some ways this may be true, but when traveling to conferences overseas I have seen interactive television applications that leave the UK far behind. More notable examples include the deployment of interactive TV advertising campaigns on digital satellite in France, MHP deployments on Digital Terrestrial in Finland, TV Chat services on Digital Satellite in Spain, fully integrated interactive TV drama in Australia and what I would call interactive communities in the United States — for example, the Enhanced TV service developed by NBC for its Saturday morning TNBC block of programming. The United States is also a unique market in regards to two-screen interactive TV experience, whereby the synchronized interactive application is delivered to the PC, for example, interactive “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

I'm not saying that the UK is not at the leading edge and that there is nothing to be learned from this country, but if you only look to one market for guidance — and this includes North America — you can get left behind. You may develop an interactive television technology the market no longer wants (or can afford). You also may not be able to deliver the interactive television service your customers really want, because you never saw the potential demand for it.

So, after two years of interactive television deployment in the UK, is there anything that can be learned from what has happened here? And can the current shifts in interactive strategic thinking prove valuable in North America? Yes, on both counts.

Where the UK has excelled in interactive television is in squeezing the very best out of first-generation interactive television software and the cost-effective, small memory footprint, set-top boxes currently deployed in 5.4 million Sky digital households. For the recent series of “Big Brother”, just over five million viewers voted for contestant eliminations directly through their TV remote control; on a regular basis 50 percent of viewers who watch soccer coverage on Sky digital choose to watch the game in interactive mode. This service enables the viewer the choice of watching the game from different camera angles around the pitch, the ability to watch edited highlights while simultaneously watching the live game and to call up a whole range of live match statistics.

QVC viewers can purchase the goods they see onscreen directly through the set-top box. And viewers of the BBC's interactive version of “Walking with Beasts” are able to call up the original storyboards developed for the program segment they are watching live and also access message boards to discuss the program. None of these applications need high-end set-top boxes or next-generation interactive TV software.

It has taken two years to get to the stage where millions of TV viewers now eagerly interact with their televisions. During that time program makers and developers of interactive platforms have established several guidelines for the successful development and deployment of interactive television services:

Understand the medium: This is television, not the Internet. It's all about entertainment and emotion. Understand the culture of your viewer: Learn why they watch TV and what they do while watching TV and use that knowledge as basic level strategy for the development of your interactive service.

Understand what content viewers most want from television: Use interactive television technology to enhance that content and improve the viewing experience. This increases loyalty and reduces churn.

Keep your viewer in the broadcast experience: Do not lead them to a virtual channel or “walled garden” where they miss out on the TV program they want to watch. The UK's most popular interactive service, “Big Brother”, only offered viewers two options: “Select a video stream” and “Vote.”

Content in context is king: Not all TV programming needs to be enhanced. In the UK no one wants to do an interactive version of “West Wing” because doing so will take away from the compelling content.

Leverage your most successful, trusted brands first: Successful interactive television services are event-driven — whether it be Wimbledon, the MTV European Music Awards or “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” — not technology-driven.

Monetize it: Make it profitable within 12 months (although market forces are currently demanding ROI within three months).

Finally, make sure the technology you use is robust, scalable, synchronous in the broadcast stream, doesn't slow under heavy usage or crash the set-top box, is fast enough for screens of enhanced information to be displayed almost instantaneously on-demand, and is dynamically linked to the databases of the content originator. A lot to ask? No. Interactive applications from NDS and BSkyB matching these criteria have been deployed successfully on the Sky digital platform for years now.

Robert Henderson is an interactive TV analyst with NDS.