Interactivity takes major step for broadcasters

Michael Kokemak, co-CEO of Backchannelmedia, and Gordon Bechtel, CTO of Triple Play Integration, talk about a new system that will let broadcasters get into the two-way interactivity game

One of the most attractive things about IPTV is the ability to incorporate two-way interactivity into television programming.

But for broadcasters, IPTV interactivity, like many other technological innovations, leaves them depending upon someone else to incorporate and fulfill. However, a new technology from Backchannelmedia promises to put broadcasters in charge of their interactive TV destiny.

Currently in beta test at Hearst-Argyle Television’s WCVB-TV in Boston and WMUR-TV in Manchester, NH, as well as Media General’s WJAR-TV in Providence, RI, the Backchannelmedia system gives viewers a way to click their TV remote controls to request more information during commercials and programs. Those clicks are logged at a data center via an Internet connection and used to create a personal portal where viewers later can find the information they’ve requested.

This week, IPTV 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 “Clickable HDTV is at hand.”)

IPTV Update: Since the beginning, broadcasters have been locked out of any possibility of the full potential of two-way communications with their viewers. You’ve seen the telcos with their IPTV offerings and some cable television operators move to take advantage of this two-way, digital interactivity with the audience. You are providing a means for broadcasters to get into the two-way interactivity game. How does your solution position television stations to benefit given the competitive landscape as it’s evolved?

Michael Kokemak: It’s taken Backchannelmedia about 12 years to design this solution. We believe our solution has to address the broadcast, over-the-air market first because you have almost 50 percent of the viewership today in the broadcast market. We believe no interactive television application will ever be successful unless it first addresses the over-the-air market.

Broadcasters are about local content. Our system positions them to compete because it really delivers on the promise of free over-the-air television. Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, TV is able to embed information in the digital signal so I can download movies, download a song or download a story from the news via the Web. In doing so, you’re giving the consumer infinite possibilities on how they can access content from over the air.

You’ve seen things in the past, like ISD-TV, and companies that have tried to use the digital spectrum in a way to deliver cable networks or networks over the digital spectrum. This is a totally different approach in that it allows television stations to put the power in the hands of the consumer to download content and information in the ways they are most comfortable.

IPTV Update: Could you lay out the basic business model you envision? In other words, how will stations be able to penetrate their markets with what’s necessary to make the Backchannel offering a reality?

Michael Kokemak: Essentially, in the past, interactive television has always been an all-or-nothing game. It’s always been you are going to get all of the distribution, or you’re going to get none of the distribution. It was either going to be through cable or DBS or some other means of delivery. What Backchannelmedia identified is that TV stations are already working with cable providers; they’re already working with DBS on things like retransmission consent. TV stations already have those relationships in place today, and what they really need is a technology that can go along with their digital signal that they can control like Backchannelmedia to enable it to be clicked though. So, in other words, instead of having to make a blanket agreement with a Comcast, Charter or Time Warner, TV stations can have agreements that reside along with agreements like retransmission consent or different types of agreements that employs Backchannelmedia selectively into DBS or cable, so it’s really the TV station that is in control of the deployment.

How our company makes money is based upon a modest installation fee, and upon a couple of cents per click, literally two to five cents per ad that would go to the Web, so we would maintain the opt out, the subscriber, take the FTC liability, canned spam. We would maintain everything that would go along with being a Web property while the TV stations can maintain great content.

IPTV Update: Could you describe the technology behind the Backchannel portal offering?

Gordon Bechtel: From a technical point of view, it’s kind of a big loop. Backchannel has dubbed a server called the Backchannel Datastream server that goes into a broadcast facility, and inserts what Backchannel calls its token IDs (TIDs), which identify each of the pieces of content and is sent down the MPEG-2 digital stream from the broadcast center, either over the air or over cable or satellite network to the viewer’s home. There is a BCM-enabled client at that home. It could be in a TV set or a cable set-top box, and at this time, they’re in an over-the-air set-top box that Backchannel has built that reads that token and displays an icon on the screen according to information that’s in it. That token allows the user to click on that ad or on the program that the token was sent in. Then the client relays that click information back to Backchannel’s server farm, which is pretty much a standard Web facility with database and Web servers on it.

That response travels over an IP network, so the OTA boxes we have now are connected to the Internet, and response goes over the Internet. It starts in the user’s home network, usually over a wireless interface, and then travels over the Internet to the Backchannel data center. There it is databased. After they click, users can visit the BCM Web site through BCM’s Web interface and check what they’ve clicked on. That datacenter then associates that response to the TID to the URL that’s originally associated with that TID when they bought it from Backchannel.

Then the user can click on that, and it will go wherever the advertiser or program creator wants it to go based on what they want to do with their campaign.

One example is the “Chronicle” program, which is the trial we are running with WCVB. It encodes TIDs into the “Chronicle” segments that are associated with the content they are covering in that particular segment in “Chronicle.”

IPTV Update: How do you envision the insertion of clickable moments into programs impacting the workflow at television stations? Specifically, in the newsroom, traffic, etc.

Gordon Bechtel: One of the things that we have done in the design of the system is to be as impact-free as possible in current broadcast operations. So, we’ve got the ability to insert in a lot of different content arenas. We can insert in advertising, in program content like “Chronicle,” or we can insert in news content.

The piece of technology that does the insertion, this Backchannelmedia Data Server Streamer, interfaces to the final MPEG-2 encoder at these broadcast facilities. It’s driven from the same automation system that everything else is driven from. So, all the ad servers are driven off automation, the news is cued from the main automation system, and programs like “Chronicle” are also cued from that.

The server takes its cue from the same automation system to insert a token in the same way that the ad server takes its cue to insert an advertisement. The idea is —we are not there yet, but are moving toward it — that these tokens would be sold by the broadcasters in the same way they sell a 30-second spot now. Those sales go through the traffic and billing systems, which drive the automation system, which then cues the necessary content for playout.

So we are trying to fit into that same flow that every broadcaster has some form of today. But everyone is at a different stage right now, and as we go through these installations, the concepts are all solid, but the details of interfaces to different automation systems is different, and the different encoders, in particular, cause us to have to customize the installation a little bit. So we’ve been engineering the equipment to have a fundamental, core software that doesn’t change but modular on the interface side so we can talk to different automation systems and encoding systems and still drop the same basic piece of equipment in without too much integration headache.

As far as the integration goes so far, the broadcast engineers and technicians in the facilities see it having zero impact. They let us in, we do a site survey, and we find out what equipment they have. We bring the server equipment in, and they find us some rack space. Within about two hours, we can complete the installation, and it’s inserting tokens into the broadcast stream.

So the idea is the workflow is very similar to the flow they have right now for advertising insertion, and we’re working on as far as news goes an integration with the ENPS system. It’s underway, but not done yet. The idea is the BDSS would be just another playout device that the ENPS interfaces with through MOS. So it would be just another MOS object that the news production crew could put into a story. Just like they put a piece of video into a story that might be cued off a teleprompter under the control of the ENPS system, the BDSS would be there too so you could cue a particular tape that’s associated with a particular story they are running right now on the news. That would allow someone to click to get more information on the flood or whatever the story is about. That’s the method we are working toward for news integration.

Michael Kokemak: It took about 10 to 12 years to really design how the workflow would work. The main thrust of Backchannelmedia has been that the people in television had to have all the same equipment they use today, and they had to be able to use it almost the exact same way they use it today — from how they order spots and cue up media assets to play. After their sizable investment in the TV plant to make it digital, the TV industry could not withstand the impact of having to go in and change out all of their systems internally to bring click through to life. It took us a long time to actually figure out how to work with all of the equipment they have inside their stations, but we believe that in the long run that will fuel their adoption of it. When broadcasters realize they don’t have to do any wholesale changes to the way they operate, they’ll understand it is achievable.

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