Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Head for the Red

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday, May 13, 2002

Once it was just a remote control, now it's a mini-electronic programming guide to what's on TV. Kate Bulkley on how the interactive-breeds-loyalty idea is taking off

Just as the latest TV icon - ITV Digital's woolly monkey - is consigned to the dustbin, another television plaything is making its mark. The red button on the Sky Digital remote handset has been pushed and prodded for all kinds of interactive reasons in the past couple of years, but now it's getting serious.

So far various Sky channels - such as Sky Sports and Sky News - have been especially active in launching a cornucopia of extra information and services that sit a click or two behind their broadcast channels. But with the BBC leading the way in interactive sport over the past nine months, the red button is now a part of many other broadcasters' production discussions.

The latest group of channels to head for the red is UKTV - that's the nine Flextech and BBC-joint owned channels - UK Gold, UK Horizons, Play UK, UK Style, UK Drama, UK Food and three channels of time-shifted programming - with their own mini-electronic programming guide (EPG).

From as early as the end of this month, Sky viewers of any of the UKTV channels should be able to press their red button to enter a new kind of walled garden for extra programming information and more. The video window will shrink to a quarter of the screen and viewers will be able to see up to two pages of details on the show they are already watching, a "what's on" guide for the other eight UKTV channels, as well as tips, trivia and quizzes. But viewers will not be able to change to another channel from inside the UKTV service - for that they must click to the master Sky EPG.

The fact that Sky controls what is effectively the gateway service for all the channels on its platform has long made the EPG a subject for regulation and oversight, scrutiny that has been reinforced in the current communications bill. But for UKTV with its various channels scattered hither and yon across the Sky Digital EPG (for example, UK Gold is channel number 109, while UK Horizons is number 564), it's no wonder it's the first broadcaster to use the red button as a tactic to help make its channels promote each other.

"The new enhanced text service allows us to emphasise the depth and breadth of what we're offering," says David Dorans, UKTV general manager and director of new media. "What we are saying is if you don't like what you are watching on our channel now, before you switch over to another broadcaster have a look at these other six that we've got for you, because we've got lots of different genres." Dorans says the service will be a success if it improves the ratings of the weaker UKTV channels which, with the exception of UK Gold and UK Style, all get audience shares below 2%.

So are other broadcasters who own a number of channels all planning mini-EPGs to keep their viewers loyal? "There are no broadcasters in digital TV that aren't thinking about red button services," says Neil McDonald, sales and marketing director for Di3, an interactive TV software development company working with UKTV. "It's all about enhancing the value of the communication with the viewer."

Broadcasters may all be looking to find ways of squeezing more out of each viewer, either by having them watch their channels longer or by selling services such as games and goods, but not all think that going the route of a mini-EPG makes sense. "For Flextech it is not a relevant strategy because we have very discrete audiences," says Johnny Webb, Flextech's director of interactive content. "We do cross promotion among certain channels, but there are shows on [lad-oriented] Bravo for instance which you wouldn't want to expose to a [youth-oriented] Trouble audience."

Discovery's nine digital channels have a more homogeneous audience than Flextech's, but the broadcaster's red button strategy is focused on enhancing specific programmes with interactive content rather than creating a Discovery EPG. "We think these [mini-EPGs] are in the early lab stages and we have different plans afoot to use our interactive bandwidth," says Tanya Field, vice-president of international new media for Discovery.

Field believes that people want to become more involved with the programming they are watching so she is using interactive services to "promote loyalty and stickiness to our channels". The problem is that unlike on the web, tracking interactive usage on the current digital TV systems is nearly impossible - something a number of broadcasters are interested in remedying.

Discovery believes that its interactivity-breeds-loyalty formula was vindicated during its Jack the Ripper programme in February. During one 20-minute segment of the show some 537 questions were sent in by viewers, many of which were read on air.

UKTV's planned mini-EPG service is essentially an enhanced listings guide, which Dorans admits even he thought sounded "a bit dull". But he says he couldn't deny UKTV's research. Focus groups for the channels conducted about a year ago said viewers aren't all that interested in gardening tips or in buying things through their televisions. What they want is simply more information about programmes.

Meanwhile, over at the BBC, research said something a little different: although viewers wanted more information on the programmes they were watching, they were not particularly interested in an EPG-like BBC listings guide. In fact, the BBC's first design for its interactive services included a "now and next" programme information service but it tested so badly with focus groups that it was shelved. Instead, the Beeb has services such as interactive games running parallel to children's programmes and its recent Olympics coverage included a large interactive layer. Its news, weather and sport programming also now have interactive elements. What viewers want will probably evolve as channels multiply and choice grows, says the BBC's controller of new media, Katharine Everett. "I will watch what UKTV is doing with great interest. I think there is a lot of potential to build on our own digital text services and we are going to put a lot of emphasis on that." EPGs are certainly evolving and are likely to become increasingly personalised, complete with targeted advertising and intelligent recording technologies like that used in the current generation of Tivo personal video recorders and the Sky Plus set- top boxes.

Already the cable operators allow viewers to re-order their EPGs to suit their personal tastes, and Sky offers a "favourites" section as well as a viewing planner on its EPG. Interactive TV company Enteraction, which helped create the Thomas Cook TV channel, is talking about launching a mini-EPG that will group together brand name retailers so they aren't "hidden away among all the simply rubbish channels in the shopping or specialist channel section of the Sky EPG," says Mark Murphy, managing director of Enteraction.

But ultimately it will be the cost and the commercial rationale of using the red button that will determine what most broadcasters do with it. Just securing what is called an application signing agreement with Sky, and paying for interactive bandwidth, can set a broadcaster back by between 200,000 and 250,000, and that's before the software applications are written and the content configured for the service. "It's a big project, but it's cheaper to do an enhanced text service like we're doing than it is to enhance individual programmes like Discovery has done," says UKTV's Dorins. And hopefully it will have the effect that all broadcasters want: more viewers, more of the time.

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