Clickable HDTV is at hand

HDTV offers viewers a glimpse of the world that’s so realistic that many often report feeling as if they were “there” in person witnessing whatever is being televised.

Imagine how that sense of participation might change the way marketers use television to sell their wares, especially if they had a means to let viewers interact with their commercial messages.

That’s precisely what’s behind a new technology from Backchannelmedia aimed at giving TV viewers a level of interactivity with their televisions that previously was impossible. The system, which is being beta tested at WCVB-TV in Boston and WMUR-TV in Manchester, NH — both Heart-Argyle Television stations — and WJAR-TV, the Media General station in Providence, RI, allows viewers to click on specially created “clickable moments” with their remote controls. Doing so builds a list of links at a personal Web portal that viewers can review later online to learn more about the products, news stories, weather conditions or anything else they’ve selected with their remote controls.

This week, “HD Technology Update” speaks with Michael Kokemak, co-CEO of Backchannelmedia, and Gordon Bechtel, CTO of Triple Play Integration, the company’s technology partner, about the system.

(Editor’s note: For more insight see “Interactivity takes major step for broadcasters.”)

HD Technology Update: Could you walk through how a TV station will benefit financially from allowing viewers to click on “clickable moments” in commercials?

Michael Kokemak: Almost 100 percent of the top Fortune 100 advertisers have Internet shopping carts. So from Exxon, you can buy a gas card; you can buy food from Stop ‘N Shop; you can buy things from Amazon. Now from television, you could see a TV commercial for Doritos, click the OK button on your remote control, and instantly put that into an Internet shopping cart that could go directly into a Fortune 100 advertiser’s ERP system. So, what you are doing now for Dell Computers is that from Dell’s TV advertising, viewers could click OK on their HDTV, a plasma experience, they click OK on their remote controls and instantly that interest is put into Dell’s ERP system or shopping cart, so Dell can track if someone buys or abandons directly from that TV commercial.

It’s not about changing TV into a per-click model, but it’s really about understanding the scope of the amount of viewers from an advertisement that then are tied into a shopping cart. This creates new inventory for a TV station. It might have 400 available 20-second commercials in a day. Now with click-throughs, they are looking at something in the order of 2000 advertising inventory avails daily. They’ve just gone up five times the number of advertising avails available. Not only that, now they are able to drive it right into the shopping cart of advertisers.

In essence, in time — not today, not tomorrow, not in the next couple of years — what it does is make HDTV local television essentially the front-end interface to the Internet itself.

HDTV Update: From the viewer’s point of view, how would these clickable moments be used in a news story, for a story on a fire, for example? What happens when a viewer clicks on the story?

Gordon Bechtel: Well, immediately, the icon flashes on the screen, so you know the request has been received. Nothing else happens on the TV. You continue watching your television as you did before. It’s not interactive television in the sense that all of a sudden the screen changes and you’re off doing something different. It almost completely leaves the TV viewing experience alone. It lets you watch TV the way you are used to viewing TV. It just adds these clicks.

In the background, what it does is relay that click response back to the BCM data center where it is logged there and kept, so later at your convenience you can go check your portal at the BCM Web site and see what you’ve clicked since the last time you checked. That’s when you can see your click requesting more information on the fire, and a link there would lead you to a news story on the fire that’s on the Web site for whatever broadcast station aired the news segment.

Michael Kokemak: So, imagine you are KTLA, the Tribune station in Los Angeles, and you are running news. Now, all of a sudden you have the “LA Times,” every headline and story that appears, you can have a crawl running at the bottom of the screen, and have it say, “Here’s a story on the fire,” and then you can click and essentially drive the TV viewer to check online and the Tribune Company could upload the stories from the “LA Times” into the consumer’s portal. Now, you have things such as the Tribune consolidating some of its offline media properties with the TV properties and creating a juggernaut of content for the viewer. Who’s in charge of putting these links in all these stories? The TV station is.

Backchannelmedia is a vendor to the TV station. We are a technology the TV station can use, but the TV station is in complete control of what the viewer can click and how long it’s on TV, what they click, how it appears in the portal, what the images are. The TV station controls 100 percent of the experience.

HD Technology Update: As far as rolling this out for the initial test markets involving Hearst-Argyle and Media General stations, will this be an offering rolled out on a mass basis for both their over-the-air audiences and for the rest of their audience? If so, who is going to be responsible for making sure that home installation of Backchannelmedia’s technology is done and that there is Internet connectivity?

Michael Kokemak: From a business perspective, once the TV station becomes comfortable with how the technology works and that the TV station or broadcast group is in control of the deployment, we feel the broadcast group will come to an agreement with DIRECTV, Echostar or cable to facilitate the deployment of the software in the set-top box, and we’ll handle the deployment of software into the set-top box.

HD Technology Update: Who’s going to be responsible for deployment for the over-the-air audience?

Michael Kokemak: We’ll be responsible for the over-the-air audience for collecting the clicks. In the event we come to an agreement with a third-party that may build over-the-air receivers in the future, then we would come to an agreement with that third-party that would build receivers in addition to our own. Then we see cable and direct satellite, with a station’s retransmission consent agreement, they would add in that they want us to collect a click from their broadcast stream through the cable plant.

HD Technology Update: Right now, if I have trouble with my IPTV, satellite or cable reception, I call my service provider. But this sounds like a level of involvement with viewers that is completely new for TV stations. They just broadcast; they don’t have any customer service in the sense that if I can’t receive their signal, they roll a truck to my house and fix the problem. So, for the over-the-air audience, how do you envision that aspect of Backchannelmedia’s offering being handled?

Michael Kokemak: We are in the process of just launching our first network center and customer service operations center, so as part of our service, we are handling the customer service so the TV station doesn’t have to worry about it. We are also handling the subscribers opting in and opting out aspect of it.

HD Technology Update: Are the over-the-air boxes what you envision for the future as Backchannel��s offering transitions past the initial text phase? Will these boxes be commercially available?

Michael Kokemak: It’s too soon to tell exactly how the over-the-air box will be available to consumers. The genesis of the over-the-air box today is that television stations have never been click-through before. TV stations don’t even understand how to approach the issue of how to make their programming interactive.

It’s going to be a tremendous learning curve for the entire industry when they realize their programming can be interactive. That can’t be understated how huge of a shift that is going to be. So, the over-the-air boxes are really about giving television station employees, friends, family and advertisers a laboratory for them to actually experiment on how they want to implement this system on cable and DBS in the future.

When you see it in person, you realize during the first 30 minutes of use that this is the way TV is going to go. If someone other than Backchannelmedia would have invented this, I would have really been depressed because it works that well. When you use it for the first half hour, you realize TV stations now have several questions to answer, like: Do they allow clickable moments during morning news? During afternoon news? Do they allow it during other types of programming? How do they come to an agreement with nationally syndicated programming? So, there is a tremendous learning curve on how to create programming, and that’s really the genesis of the over-the-air box.

HD Technology Update: So currently, the over-the-air box is more about allowing broadcasters to get a taste of what is possible, but you don’t necessarily see broadcasters offering this service to its general over-the-air audience?

Michael Kokemak: We actually think there is a place in the market for it. But we think that comes after TV stations understand that television can be click-through and don’t focus so much on their over-the-air component to their signal. We believe it will be a tremendous financial windfall for the entire industry, unlike anything like mobile or anything else on the horizon. It will change the fortunes of broadcast groups dramatically over the few years.

That being said, we see that there is a place for an over-the-air box that could be a DVR with program guide, with clickable moments that you can click on TV, which a consumer could go into a Best Buy and purchase the box for $50 to $75 and just hook it up to their televisions. Or, in some of the HDTV sets today that are available, they may be able to download the software into those sets in the future. But the focus today is to get them to understand not only that this is possible, it’s actually deployed.

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