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Interactivity: Lack of clarity

The main change that will occur in the coming years in television services is the consolidation of the ubiquitous small screen as a two-way means of communication. The biggest difference between today's viewer and the viewer of the near future will be their ability to participate in programming, and it is clear that this will significantly change their perception of the experience of watching television.

More spaces.

In what framework will this migration occur? The digitization of television services represents many challenges and new opportunities for program producers. For the owners of prime time, it may be relearning the trade to be able to meet the demands of high definition realization. Thanks to the multiplexing of SD signals there will be a lot of air space to occupy, which will represent many repetitions, an explosion of infomercials and a radical change in the conditions of competition.

The technology that makes possible a first level of interactive television will become a very important factor in defining new business opportunities. Profitability will depend on the ability of producers to generate programming that allows them to take advantage of viewer participation, as the industry tries to survive the financial trauma that will accompany the digitization of existing television services.

And what is the key to successfully integrating into the new television markets? It is possible that the answer is "Think differently", be willing to recreate the medium based on new business opportunities. It is about applying what some call lateral thinking, the attitude that allows you to distance yourself from problems to size them again and find creative solutions.

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Nothing is new...

The first thing to clarify is that interactive television is not something new, really. In fact, where there is a telephone hybrid, the technology is available to make interactive programs... we've all seen shows that ask viewers to participate, contests that make surprise calls, video games that are controlled by phone keypad tones, charity events that make phone fundraisers, and opinion shows with live polls. There is even a major Brazilian network that allows the public to select the prime time movie through a telephone survey. All this is interactive television, and it has been on the air for many years.

The difference offered by new technologies is the possibility of integrating more people from the public faster, more reliably and perhaps cheaper. The possibility of having new data return routes will make it possible for the viewer to participate in the contest together with their favorite player, to enjoy the possibility of becoming part of the statistics... and also that it can help make telemarketing geniuses happy by being able to instantly buy the amazing products of infomercials.

New routes.

The new interactivity technology is based on the convergence between traditional television services and Internet access. Until some time ago it was thought to use telephone or cable television networks to transport the return information of viewers, but the industry has discovered that it does not need to invent what is already invented... you may think about using the physical cabling of existing networks, but the medium will be the Network. It's not worth generating new ways of doing things if everyone has already accepted efficient email protocols, handling financial transactions, and transporting multimedia information.

Most likely, it is that interactive TV technology has a different face than the connected PC, especially to avoid scaring away the technophobic public. This has led some people to think that the convergence between the home PC and the TV may take on a different aspect than previously thought a few years ago.

This is basically a marketing problem, as it may be more profitable to sell new TVs and allow consumers to keep their PC in the next room. In this way, two artifacts are sold instead of one. And in any case it is not ruled out that the PC user can enable his equipment to receive television, or that he decides to mount his domestic theater around his game station.

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Instead of having a PC capable of receiving television signals, you may be looking to have TV receivers with some "intelligence". In this way, users will be able to send return information and simultaneously have access to web content that will eventually be related to the program that is on the air. Selective access to these contents will be one of the main attractions of TVI technology for today's demanding public, accustomed to zapping as a way of life.

In any case, the current trend of the industry is to promote the accelerated development of TVI technology even before traditional television services are digitized. The basic resource to support this movement is the well-known set-top box of cable television services, the set top box that is already present in many homes around the world.

The magic boxes.

According to current proposals, interactivity support is based on a parallel connection to that of traditional television transmission. In this way, those who do not want or cannot access the content and additional functions will be able to use an ordinary TV and limit themselves to watching television.

A set top box allows the decoding of web information related to the program, and supports additional e-mail functions or limited replies, depending on what the TVI program that is on the air needs. Additionally, the box must support return communication, which can use a dialup Internet connection over a telephone line, or perhaps some type of signal multiplexing over the cable television network. And on equipment of this type it is absolutely trivial to install payment-per-view and electronic purchase systems. Or chat rooms for bored viewers.

Everything will be handled from the remote control, which will probably follow the trend of simplification, except in cases where it is intended to function as an alphanumeric keypad, which may be very reasonable if you intend to offer access to conventional email systems. Most likely, these are modular products, whose software can be updated online to equip them with additional options.

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This is a very interesting technology, which makes it possible to implement interactivity systems and transport additional content using conventional analog television systems. In fact, if the scale of the operations allows it, the box could incorporate the necessary converters to be able to see DTV signals in analog receivers, which can turn this type of products into very attractive options for the ordinary viewer, who is already beginning to feel intimidated by the initial costs of DTV receivers.

This type of system has been working for several months in different markets. One of the most interesting experiences is that of Great Britain, which completed the total digitization of its terrestrial television network and is beginning to implement TVI experiences in major cities.

To the extent that standardization and market pressures allow the additional box will tend to disappear and be replaced by hardware installed inside the DTV receivers. For now, however, the set top boxes will make the capitalist dream of some producers come true: As this system becomes popular it will be necessary to pay to fully enjoy the experiences of free-to-air television...

Unwanted interactivity...

Let's take a little precautionary pause at this point. TVI technology support can add fascinating dimensions to the world of television. Set top boxes could periodically and automatically report which channels or services viewers are using, which can radically change the business of tuning measurements. It is possible that some sectors of the industry could be harmed if a measurement system based on real information and not statistical projections is implemented.

On the other hand, the security and privacy problems characteristic of web users can also touch connected viewers. Let's remember the message of consumer associations in the United States: while you are online someone watches over you. It is very attractive for marketing companies to have a new resource to get accurate information about consumer habits... and many times those who decide to use a free service are unknowingly handing over personal information that may have some commercial value.

Another difficult issue is the extension of questionable interactive services to the television environment... a TVI team can seamlessly support online betting systems, for example. It is possible that in the face of this type of possibilities, social movements will be generated that try to achieve an effective zoning of the web, similar in some way to the classification of television programs. Perhaps from your remote control you will be able to decide that your teenagers can only receive TVI material with PG13 rating...

Some problems.

Who are the actors in this process of migration to interactive services? The most important firms in the computer market are trying to manage the development of this technology in order to be part of the boom that is expected in the coming years. Many producers are beginning to make serious efforts to develop new program formats. Subscription television companies are an important part of this market, as they can benefit from the implementation of remote marketing and pay-per-view systems. Traditional telecommunications companies also want to get into the game, as they own telephone networks, satellite links and all the infrastructure necessary to implement return channels in TVI systems.

Some software companies that have concentrated their efforts on an aspect that is often forgotten: "Most of the web content that exists today is incompatible with the characteristics of a television screen, have also shown their interest. This problem would be reduced by advancing the migration to DTV systems, since the effective resolution of an SDTV digital signal is similar to that of a conventional VGA screen, which could be sufficient to handle web content... if it is not necessary to share the screen with other applications.

In fact, the conventional HTML content that we find on the web would not be understood very well with the current programming formats. A logical option would be to reserve the ends of the 16:9 screen for interactive content, or implement Picture-in-Picture systems that allow you to manage the screen space according to the consumer's taste... but all this represents additional costs, and in reality it would not solve the problem of absolutely anodyne web pages that by their design require high resolution.

To address this problem, several software firms have developed systems that allow the online "translation" of existing HTML material and its adaptation to 4:3 television screens. Some of the new cable TV Internet distribution systems are based precisely on sophisticated systems that make it possible to filter web content and adapt it to the constraints of television screens. The market will decide very soon.

Business is traffic...

Despite the convergence with the web, we must not forget that Interactive Television is still Television. Producers who are interested in attacking this market must start working positively in this regard. To pick up on a phrase we published a few months ago, this does not mean that we should turn our star cameraman into an expert in designing HTML pages. But it is time to start acquiring the know-how about the web that will allow us to integrate it consistently into our interactive productions.

How to start working in this direction? Do not forget that to have traffic on the web you have to offer useful information ... The best route to support the migration to TVI is to start consolidating your web presence. Leverage your website to enrich your programs. Promote it as if it were just another program. Structure your operations so that your programs can benefit from the use of e-mail. Set up a mailing list with information about your schedule. Bring the merchandising of your programs to the web. Perhaps you can set up on your own website outlets for your infomercial customers. Think differently in order to survive.

Remember that you don't have to force migration processes to DTV in order to enjoy the benefits of interactivity. If your website is attractive and your company has already acquired the know-how to support complex applications you could start implementing from now on, programming with a decided TVI look. After all, there are many homes that have one or more PCs next to the TV. And they are precisely the homes that their advertisers are most interested in.

The latter makes us think something fundamental. Interactive television is not going to be more productive for those who first install the sophisticated equipment needed to ensure convergence. Over the next few years TVI will be synonymous with new programming formats and not technological renewal, especially in the most depressed markets. Perhaps the right decision is to design programs that take advantage of the connected world within the framework of conventional production systems. The key is to think differently to start preparing for when television and computing merge into a single network. Or perhaps in a single jungle.

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