The Idiot Box turns Smart



Will Conditional Access System come into operation on July the 15th? Even as
the debate rages on, it is clear that the issue is only about the ‘when’.
Whenever the system becomes operative, it will mark the first step towards
integration of new technologies with plain old television. The idiot box may
finally be turning smart.

Part of the reason that there’s a debate lies in the fact that the viewing
customer has not been a part of this discussion. No one really knows the
benefits of such systems. Everyone seems to think that he will have to pay more
for the same stuff. Well, that’s not true. The first major advantage is that
there will be choice. You could watch channels that have less or no advertising.
That would be a great boon to those who are completely fed up with the
continuous and repetitive stream of advertising that interrupts today’s TV
broadcasts.

Shyam
Malhotra

“Everyone
seems to think that he’ll have to pay more for the same stuff.
That’s not true at all. The first advantage is that there will be
choice, lots of it”

The truth is that ads pay for the service. The viewer enjoys the freebie…
except that the freebie has ad strings attached to it.

The advertising world is today subsidizing each viewer/reader in India to the
tune of Rs 1,000 per annum. So, if each of the 100 million-odd media consumers
were willing to pay Rs 1,000 each year, there would be no economic necessity
left for ads to shown on TV or printed in newspapers and magazines. That is not
likely to happen. In fact, the whole TV-watching experience is going to turn
interactive–which will breed completely new forms of advertising.

Interactive TV will also provide many more viewing options. For instance, the
$12.95-a-month service from TiVO records your program serials so that you can
watch them at leisure. It can also record all the games of your selected
football–sorry, should should read cricket?–team. Or movies of your favorite
star. The digital video recorder does all this and more. Or the MSN TV offerings
that help you connect your telephone line to the television so that you can chat
or e-mail or browse the Net from the couch–instead of the chair. You can also
carry on a chat with friends even as you watch a movie–very much like you
would do at a real cinema hall. The device set consists of the connector, a
remote and a wireless keyboard–and costs $99.

And these are just two examples of the new emerging world of interactive TV.
When fully realized on a mass scale, our current experience of television is
going to drastically change. A viewer will be able to get detailed information
about specific topics presented during a show, purchase goods associated with a
program, get product details for ads being carried, share knowledge and opinions
about the broadcast in real time and participate in group activities. ITV has
been around for a few years and was expected to emulate the Big Bang. Things
have been slower, but that just means that reality checks are working. Europe
seems to be taking on iTV faster than the US. In spite of higher infrastructure
costs, iTV is gaining momentum. The French market has shown significant growth
as per figures released by Canal Satellite (an interactive service provider) for
its interactive services during 2002. It has around 2 million digital
subscribers now, and has estimated that Interactive TV Services are accessed on
an average 32.4 million times per month. Ireland claims to have one digital
subscriber per five households and in the UK, digital TV penetration is said to
have exceeded 40% of the population, surpassing the Internet’s residential
penetration.

So what more does iTV do? Apart from the video on demand and the premium or
pay services mentioned earlier iTV can develop as yet another commerce channel–the
t-commerce channel. So you could order the product of choice even as you watch
its ad. And advertisements could also be tailored to your purchase patterns. If
you purchase shoes frequently, you would see more ads related to footwear
instead of being bombarded with ads for soft drinks. To make life more
interesting–and rewarding for the advertiser–the ads themselves could become
much more interactive. The advertiser could, for instance, build an ad with
different story lines and conduct a popularity poll amongst viewers. The winning
story line would then be telecast during the next brea. And viewers would come
back to see if their preferred story line won the polls or not.

The “Coca-Cola TXT for Music” interactive advertisement on Sky
Digital channel in the UK is aimed at convincing viewers to take part in Coke’s
promotional activities. By pressing on a red button on the remote, the viewer is
taken to a site where he can register by entering his mobile number. Viewers who
register are automatically entered into a prize draw for backstage passes for
Coca-Cola “Red Room” events across UK.

In addition to making advertising more effective by enhanced interactivity,
viewing habits will be measured far more effectively than today’s methods of
controversial random polls. That would, in turn, help advertisers figure out the
popularity of channels far more effectively. Game shows could take on a
different hue altogether with live voting across all viewers–not just studio
audiences. No need to go to a studio to take part in a contest. You could
exercise your choice sitting at home and win the brand new car with nothing more
than a few buttons pushed on your remote or an SMS being sent through your
mobile–and of course the smile of Lady Luck.

Technology makes all this and more feasible. The essence lies in adding
devices and software that make the one-way television broadcast a two-way
interactive event. The set top box–or similar devices built into the TV itself–carry
the return signal through a variety of channels to the interactive service
provider. The service provider runs the servers and software needed to manage
these transactions in real time. The whole process is similar to what happens on
the net–except that visuals and graphics are much more alive. And the
applications come to a much higher degree from the world of entertainment and
not the world of business where the Internet has developed.

Not that everything is in place. The technology is settling down. And
becoming commercially feasible. For an effective Interactive experience, it is
necessary that the system response is instantaneous. Technology also has to span
across the different methods that TV signals reach the viewer — digital cable,
satellite, wireless cable, the twisted pair and the Internet.

And there is tremendous amount of software to be put in place across many
platforms — Liberate, Open TV, Web TV, MSN TV and even Linux TV. Standards are
evolving and there is the usual jockeying taking place for lead spots. Software
is required for billing and transaction processing purposes, enabling t-commerce
transactions and for making the advertising enhancements. And bandwidth, cost
and cultural issues are going to pose question marks. So while the Interactive
TV world is near it is a bit out of reach.

The Conditional Access System is just the first step in this direction. It
would not be a good idea to debate about it for too long.

Shyam Malhotra
The author is Editor-in-Chief of Cyber Media, the publishers of Dataquest.

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