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It's the Entertainment, Stupid!

And other secrets from the AFI enhanced-TV gurus

LOS ANGELES

I know you're out there -- hiding this copy of TV Technology behind the pages of Variety like a guilty schoolboy. It was in Variety that you read about the first Emmy for outstanding achievement in interactive television programming being awarded to HBO's "Band of Brothers" and you ate your heart out -- you had secretly planned to win it yourself. Except you didn't think it would happen this soon because not enough people have set-top boxes.

Well, take heart. Interactive TV is not about the arrival of any particular technology; It's about enhancing the entertainment experience. Truth is: Creative producers out there are using anything they can get their grubby little Hollywood Reporter-stained hands on to enhance their content. You can, too. I've brought along some of my fellow mentors from the American Film Institute's Enhanced TV Workshop, and the producer of the Emmy winner himself, to show you how.

DISSECT YOUR PROGRAM

Start by getting to the heart of your program -- its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Sandy Spadavecchia, senior producer of HBO Interactive Ventures and producer of the EmmyÐwinning iTV "Band of Brothers" emphasizes, "If you don't have a conceptual understanding of what the show is, the interactivity isn't going to work."

Your show's biggest challenges can often be the keys to compelling interactivity. Are there so many characters that it's difficult to follow? Spadavecchia included a character guide in his application to help with this problem.

Some of the best interactive TV applications answer questions the viewer might have. Many producers worry that interactivity will distract from their show, but those nagging questions may do even more harm. Interactivity can help bring them back into the story.

Bring all of your existing assets to the table. "Stay open-minded. Sometimes you come up with things that in their first expression don't seem at all relevant or appropriate, but as you form them through conversation [they] can really be great ideas," encourages Karen Lennon, CEO of Beyond Z and developer of the iTV "Band of Brothers."

Christopher Swain, governor of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Interactive Media Peer Group and professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television notes, "The first thing is to really define the user and what the user wants and then design features for that."

One helpful brainstorming technique offered by Anna Marie Piersimoni, AFI's associate director, New Media Ventures, is to do a mental walkthrough of a day in the life of your "view-ser" (viewer/user). Go through the show and work through each place you imagine her interacting with the story.

Marcia Zellers, director of Enhanced Television with AFI cautions that one of the biggest mistakes made by interactive producers is "thinking of [iTV] in terms of technologies we already know." Swain sums it up: "Every interactive producer's role is to create something that É makes the television experience better." Finally, Denny Tu, vice president for Creative and Strategic Development, for Autonomy, an entertainment branding company, offers a reminder to lighten up. "The fun part about getting to work with iTV [is creating] applications that make me want to play with them," he says.

PICK A PLATFORM

Swain dismisses the one-screen vs. two-screen debate. "Why not just produce for where you can get an audience?" he asks. These days, although that audience may not have "fat" set-top boxes, it is consuming many types of media. Recent AFI Prototypes have been designed for DVD, gaming consoles such as the Sony PlayStation 2, as well as various set-top boxes.

Consider: Why are you going interactive in the first place? Is it to increase your audience? Or is your emphasis on finding a new way to extend your story?

You don't have to stick with just one option, either. Similar to the way many companies create high- and low-bandwidth versions of their Web sites, you can create two versions of your application.

EYES ON VISUAL DESIGN

Study your show's existing brand assets including style guides and any focus group results to ensure that your interactive design remains consistent with the show's identity.

The standard rules of broadcast color and fonts apply, but you may be limited in your choices if a set-top box is used, due to file size constraints.

Developing a language of icons can be useful in getting your message across economically. Remember, in most cases you are designing for 10 feet away from the screen.

Navigation should be clean and obvious. "Drive by a billboard," says Tu. "If something's really blah or small, you're not going to care. The overall driving element needs to be visually different. It sounds so simple, but it's almost never done."

Lennon looks to future trends. "[iTV design] is going to be related to the enabling of the boxesÉ and what we've learned from user behavior," she says. "We will probably start seeing greater emphasis onÉ layered video with gaming elements."

Spadavecchia shares his focus; "My feeling [is] that the programming is always the star. The key is to justify everything that goes up on that screen."

And Piersimoni offers the final acid test. Ask yourself, "Does my show look like itself?"

MAKE IT HAPPEN

After all creative and visual elements have been worked out, impose a freeze on any added functionality and then go back to your "day in the life" exercise to generate an information architecture document depicting all possible user paths.

In choosing a prototype format, decide whether you want it to actually be interactive (useful if you are conducting usability focus groups). It is often simplest to simulate the interactivity and present your prototype as a self-playing movie.

As with any production, test, test, and re-test your product before introducing it to others.

SHOW IT OFF

Congratulations! You have your first iTV prototype. You may not win an Emmy on your first try (then again, who knows?), but the fact that the category has been created has lent new legitimacy to iTV. Christopher Swain notes, "There are cases where projects are getting green-lit now because there's an Emmy available."

Good luck!