iTV IntegrationDoing iTV, For Real

Although the U.S. market for interactive television (iTV) has been choppy at best, the increasing penetration of digital television infrastructure may pave the way for more consumer interest in the medium. That’s good for broadcasters (which are defined in this article as encompassing over-the-air broadcasters, cable operators, and DBS providers). Many who have already implemented interactive television have found it to be a great tool for retaining and attracting viewers and bringing in additional revenue. If your station or network is serious about launching iTV, it should look into working with one of the three main providers of iTV integration services in the United States: NDS, OpenTV, and Triveni Digital.

As many readers may know, interactive television services have seen most of their success primarily in Europe. NDS, for example, has teamed up with MTV Europe to enhance the programming of several of its shows. Broadcasters can implement iTV through NDS’ Value@TV suite of products and applications.

Don Rubin, vice president and general manager, Americas for NDS, noted that although interactive television programming does not necessarily provide an instant ROI, it will make for the most “exciting service around,” helping to attract new viewers and maintain existing ones.

Rubin pointed to SportsView, a service NDS developed with Hawaii Oceanic Time Warner Cable in 2002, as an example of this. SportsView allows Hawaii Oceanic subscribers to choose, with their remote controls, between six different camera angles at televised local sports games. Hawaii Oceanic charges subscribers extra for a “season pass” to the service.

NDS customers can use the company’s Production Suite to build their iTV services. Options include authoring tools; data preparation, publishing, scheduling, and synchronization tools; data acquisition and return-path management tools; and playout services. There are also functions for content and response management and APIs.

Of course, NDS is not the only iTV game in town. There is also OpenTV. Its Network Solutions product line comprises the OpenTV Streamer, OpenTV Publisher, and OpenTV Gateway. OpenTV Streamer is an iTV delivery system that allows operators to deliver a variety of rich media services without requiring the end-user (such as a cable TV subscriber) to use an upstream communications path.

It works by “sweeping” iTV content into a data carousel, which broadcasts the content to all end-users all of the time. Each data module housed on the carousel can be viewed by an unlimited number of customers. Streamer performs realtime compilation of the modules, so time-sensitive information, such as sports scores, breaking news, and weather reports can be transmitted almost instantaneously. In the case that an end user does not have a set-top box with the HTTP support required to support not needing an upstream communications path, there is the OpenTV Gateway. It manages and integrates the communication traffic from standard set-top boxes to standard email and commerce servers, and translates transactions to standard Internet protocols such as HTTP and SMTP. OpenTV Publisher allows users to translate XML (Web) data into iTV applications, providing the ability to update iTV content.

According to Vincent Dureau, chief technology officer of OpenTV, some of the most powerful benefits of interactive television are in its potential to help operators keep a lid on costs. He said this is especially true for cable operators. “As far as network operators are concerned, we believe that interactive television can allow them to reduce costs—especially in the area of customer support,” he said. Instead of speaking to an operator, for example, customers can interact with their televisions to get the answers to support-type queries.

Another major iTV integration solutions provider, Triveni Digital, offers its SkyScraper Interactive broadcasting system, which facilitates the insertion of interactive material during program development. According to Jonathan Schembor, vice president, marketing and business development for Triveni Digital, what distinguishes SkyScraper Interactive from other interactive programming insertion products is that it can embed any type of data into a program stream. It does not matter if the data is program-synchronous (tightly coupled with the video being played), program asynchronous (not as tightly coupled), or program-agnostic (not related to the video being played at all).

“The world of program-synchronous [interactive television material] has never really taken off,” said Schembor. Much of this is due to the fact that the U.S. has yet to define a common interface between interactive digital applications and the terminals on which those applications are launched. Schembor noted, however, that standards organizations such as those for the Multimedia Home Platform (MPH) are actively working on the issue.

Indeed, if standards issues can be worked out, broadcasters may find iTV to be a boon to their operations. Even if they don’t provide an immediate ROI, iTV services are often an ideal way to bring in new viewers and maintain existing ones.