Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Multichannel is sooo 1990s darling!

By Kate Bulkley

Royal Television Society

November, 2003

As the TV industry rushes towards its future, a few pioneers are sitting down today to make sure the future everyone arrives at is the same one. They are called the Future TV Committee and since first getting together nine months ago under the auspices of the RTS, the group has become neutral ground for those at the cutting edge of new TV technologies to meet, talk and tackle some of the key hurdles to making new digital services work and prosper.

Christine Mitchell, chair of the Future TV Committee and herself an early recruit to the pay TV business in the UK, says that creating the new group made sense because a lot of these people had passed each other on conference platforms but had little opportunity to actually sit down and talk. "Itís really a unique forum for people who are launching new services to talk about what needs to be done to make all of these things a success," says Mitchell.

The make-up of the committee includes some 20 people, many of whom are also commercial rivals, but committee member Neil MacDonald MD of DITG, a provider of interactive services, says that everyone leaves their commercial rivalries "outside of the door." So far the committee has attracted a lot of interest from the growing number of people in UK TV who spend their time working out how new digital technologies can find and keep audiences. "Itís been so hot that I have people knocking on the door to join," says Mitchell. "We began by thinking we would meet once every two months, but there has been such an appetite that weíve actually been meeting once a month."

Consciousness Raising for Traditional TV:

The Future TV Committee grew out of the RTSís Multichannel TV Committee (now defunct), but goes way beyond its progenitor in terms of scope. Says Mitchell: "Multichannel is so 1990s, darling! We needed to make sure that we were incorporating and personal video recorders (PVR) technologies and video-on-demand (VOD) and Red Button services and not just talking about niche channels."

MacDonald and Mitchell believe that one of the committeeís first jobs is to make sure that the wider TV business is aware of how the business is being changed by technologies like interactive capabilities and PVR. "There is a wake-up call to be made to the TV industry not just about interactivity but about some of the impacts of digital services and where that technology is developing," says MacDonald.

New channels like bingo-style betting channel Avago and auction-style channels bid-up TV and price-dropTV, are entirely built around interactivity.

Indeed, the revolution of the Red Button has meant that audiences are increasingly participating in their TV experience and as many channels and programme makers have already discovered there are new relationships with viewers to be forged and new money to be made. This is especially important as audiences fragment and technologies like personal video recorders threaten traditional TV revenue streams from advertising.

Beyond providing a neutral forum for discussion and a platform for educating the greater TV business about new technology developments, the new committee is also looking closely at how to make interactive services compatible across distribution platforms, a key to making them economically viable.

Although the committee has no ambition to set technical standards, there are other bodies better equipped to do that, says Mitchell, there is a desire among members to make the "user experience" for consumers a good one.

Martin Graham Scott, the MD of Fancy a Flutter, a interactive TV betting service, and a Future TV Committee member, says the group is interested in agreeing what makes "good iTV", which includes key tests like making it quick, easy, reliable, entertaining and rewarding. "Itís really about usability," adds Mitchell. "What happens when you hit the red button, where do you go, is it confusing, these are issues we are all interested in."

Another big issue for the committee is tracking how interactive and other new technologies are used by audiences.

"One of the big issues is measurement," says MacDonald of DITG. "There is no standard of measurement for iTV. We donít know how many people actually push the red button because we only know about them if they engage the return path.

In a lot of enhanced TV there are a lot of services and applications that you can use and play with and get information through that live behind the programming, but that donít engage the return path, so we donít know whatís going on there."

The Future TV Committee had a meeting with BARB about their concerns last month (October). "BARBís current reporting system does not track down to the deeper levels of interactivity and people developing and broadcasting interactive services need to develop them in a way that BARB can track them," says MacDonald. "The key thing is to try and feed interactive usage information into existing measurement currency and that will take both sides working together"

Keeping Tags on the Audience

Exactly how an improved audience tracking system can be accomplished is not yet clear, although Mitchell says that meta-tagging of data by programme makers cold help. The point is that the Future TV Committee has given BARB a "collective view from almost the majority of practitioners in the industry and that in itself is quite forward-looking," said MacDonald.

One interesting result of the Future TV Committeeís work thus far is that it has "left a bit of a hungry taste in our mouths because the RTS doesnít have the mandate to do much more than provide a forum for discussion and presentation of collective views," says MacDonald. "The committee has highlighted the need for something else; a place where we could actually work toward mandating things like open standards for writing iTV applications and cross platform solutions."

Jon Florsheim, managing director of sales and marketing at BSkyB, adds: "The Future TV Committee is a welcome opportunity for executives in the interactive space to share insights and to discuss ways to increase further the value and relevance of interactive TV to viewers.

"As technologies such as PVRs exert a growing influence on the industry, this will be a valuable forum to assess their impact on viewing patterns."

Whether the Future TV Committee leads to something else is a question for the future. For now, the committee seems to be providing an important rallying point for the new TV practitioners and that has had positive benefits already.


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