Cable operators target 25 million homes for interactive TV

At the Cable Show last week, cable operators set a goal of installing interactive television in 25 million target homes this year, despite admissions the technology is not yet ready for prime time.

During a panel discussion, the industry announced a brand name for the interactive technology, SelecTV, which is part of a campaign to brand Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) interactive features and make them more “comfortable” with consumers.

In February, CableLabs and Canoe Ventures announced the latest EBIF specification, which features functionality developed to meet competitive interactive television market requirements and should stimulate development of a wide range of EBIF-enhanced programming, advertising and applications.

Canoe Ventures and CableLabs have been working with MSOs to expand the EBIF specification to satisfy emerging business requirements and are coordinating efforts to educate the technical, programming and advertising community about the capabilities of the EBIF platform. They have jointly launched a new EBIF website and have planned a series of initiatives throughout the year aimed at increasing programmer and advertiser commitment to launching EBIF-based interactive content.

At the Cable Show however, existing problems dominated the discussions. Programmers need to start creating applications and experimenting now with EBIF, Mark Hess, Comcast’s senior vice president of advanced business and technology development, said on a panel called EBIF Nation. “You have to get on this now.”

There were wide admissions that EBIF standards are still problematic. “I got introduced to two dirty little words called ‘user agent,’” Michael Aaronson, NBC Universal’s vice president of digital distribution told the panel.

The EBIF’s user agent is the code that resides in a set-top box to receive “triggers,” display on-screen graphics and return a viewer’s responses. The problem is there are variations among different user agents that have been deployed by different MSOs.

“It’s not really ’build it once and deploy everywhere,’ so it’s tough,” Aaronson said. “We’re not quite at the place where we can light up interactivity nationwide.”

Chief technology officer Arthur Orduña of Canoe Ventures, an interactive advertising unit owned by six of the largest cable companies, noted it is still the early days of EBIF technology. “We are trying to reconcile different user agents that are written to a spec. You have to test them with different applications, and that’s a critical role that CableLabs is playing for us.”

NBC’s Aaronson also noted that creating interactive features that accompany programming is often more trouble than it’s worth. For the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, NBCU had some form of interactivity for 45 million homes, but he said that effort took several months, and involved at least half a dozen development projects.

“There’s a disconnect between the level of effort required to put stuff out today and the return,” Aaronson said. “The market has got to mature more.”