Is it the final answer for interactive TV? No, but it's a good start.
, the home of the hypnotic phenomenon
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
, is launching a play-along version of the game show Tuesday in conjunction with
, the online unit of ABC parent
And although the company believes in the long-run overlap of the Internet and television, its current definition of interactive TV is pretty simple: a TV and a PC in the same room.
This relatively low-tech version of TV/PC convergence illustrates the challenges faced by many Internet companies as they prepare for widespread broadband service to the home, and by media companies that seek to take their valuable properties from the offline world into the online one: The consensus is that the TV will become more interactive, but how and when it will get here, and exactly what the economics will be, are still up in the air.
Interactive TV is a two-screen experience -- the big-screen TV and the small-screen PC -- says Jonathan Leess, senior vice president of GO.com and general manager of the GO/ABC TV network enhanced television unit. What that means for players of the game is that they log onto their computer in viewing distance (or in earshot) of a TV set tuned to the broadcast of the show.
Once they reach the
"Enhanced TV" site, they can play along with the TV broadcast, answering questions on their computer that pop up in synchronization (when everything's working as planned) with the programming on their TV. Players get extra credit for answering questions quickly, and they also can earn points by answering Internet-only questions about trivia, such as what color sweater a contestant's spouse is wearing.
Even though the prizes definitely won't make you a millionaire -- think mouse pads and baseball caps to start -- the game, which ABC has been running quietly in a beta test, looks fun. Ninety-seven percent of players polled said they would use enhanced TV again; a majority of respondents said they'd play every time they watched
It would be easier to play this game over an interactive TV, not a PC, but Leess believes that will take awhile. By 2008, there will be 40 million interactive-enabled set-top boxes in people's homes, according to a presentation he makes; he thinks that within two years, there will be enough in people's homes to build a single-screen audience. "The single-screen experience is growing," he says. "But it's not big enough to build a business off of it."
Well, even the size of that double-screen experience is unclear. About 27 million people in the U.S. say they have their TVs and PCs on simultaneously, Leess says. "I wouldn't begin to guess how many of these homes have them in the same room," he says. ABC's enhanced TV football broadcasts lured 2.8 million unique users over the past season, he says; the Super Bowl had 550,000 unique visitors, he says.
Enhanced TV faces numerous challenges and obstacles, Leess acknowledges. One is technical: one of the biggest hassles, he says, is making sure the technology works, no matter what kind of browser people are using. There's also the question of suitability of programming:
is both a program that's popular enough to put ABC on top of the ratings heap, and a game show that nearly every home viewer believes he could ace. Another show for which ABC is considering an enhanced TV broadcast, the women's talk show
, also makes ETV sense -- after all, is the on-the-air chat room much different than an online chat? But whether ETV would work for sitcoms and dramas is unclear. "I still believe, as a TV viewer, that some people want to sit back and watch TV ... and get sucked into it," Leess says.
Yet another challenge to overcome is advertiser resistance. Salespeople are just hitting the street trying to sell
advertising. Advertisers are "confused" he says, because TV advertisers are used to buying households, and Internet advertisers are used to buying impressions. How does one measure the value of a game that Leess says people average 40 minutes playing at a time? What's the value to an advertiser of knowing that 80% of players say they stay tuned to the TV channel during a commercial break? "It's an interesting sell," Leess says.
To an outsider, it's also unclear how much it's costing ABC to run the enhanced TV broadcast. One can get a sense of costs based on the personnel Leess says is working on the show: about a half-dozen people in a control room putting the show together, and four engineers making sure the Internet game synchronizes with the TV show as it's broadcast for each time zone. But Leess won't say anything about when the ETV broadcast might be profitable, or when the revenues will be statistically significant. "I have a business plan, but I can't share it with you," he says.
The economic specifics aside, Leess portrays the venture as self-defense: "The devices in our home are allowing our viewers to multitask with any conceivable channel in the air," he says. "Our goal is to create compelling content for our viewers to interact with our shows and stay on our channel." He adds, "We can't afford to lose our audience."