Confab opens door to new arena

LAS VEGAS — Emerging interactive television services, touted as “the future of TV,” were the hot topic during brainstorming sessions at HollyWeb, a Saturday-Sunday event that precedes today’s opening of the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab.

Internet execs, including Lycos CEO Robert Davis, Broadcast.com co-founder/prexy Mark Cuban and Open TV chief exec Jan Steenkamp, debated the future of enhanced TV systems and Web ventures during two days of panels.

On Saturday, new systems were being shown off by rivals Tivo Inc. and Replay Networks — the makers of two digital video recording set-top boxes — and reps from OpenTV, WebTV, ICTV and @Home.

Individual services offer TV viewers the chance to record and search for shows, to pause “live” programming, to sort shows of interest and to learn more about shows through Internet links.

Although a panel featuring both Tivo and Replay reps was congenial, Replay CEO Anthony Wood criticized Tivo’s “thumbs up, thumbs down” suggestion service, saying, “We think consumers know what they like and can choose programs on their own.”

As for which companies will dominate the crowded Internet arena, Steenkamp of OpenTV — which is readying to deploy its interactive TV system in the U.S. this fall through EchoStar’s DISH Network — said, “It all depends on who can deliver the Internet at high speeds. OpenTV already deploys its service to more than 2 million homes in Europe.

“The Internet is a very powerful medium, but access speeds have to be improved. Right now, everybody calls it the World Wide Wait.”

Steenkamp said high-speed cablers and modem builders will dominate the marketplace — and Wall Street — in the future, as will digital set-top providers. Online retailers will also continue to do well, with off-line transaction processing and fulfillment companies reaping the profits.

“Someone has to deliver all those goods,” Steenkamp said.

TV companies that have “the foresight to adopt the technology early” will also prove market leaders, he stated, citing Rupert Murdoch’s SkyTV and BSkyB’s efforts in the U.K. as examples.

“There’s a hunger for communication,” he said. “But there’s a lot of confusion in the market. Whoever can make sense of it all will succeed.”

As for trends emerging throughout the rest of the Web, panelists agreed that broadcast networks will begin using the Internet as a way of test-marketing new programs.

“Research and development on the Web is efficient and cost-effective,” said Cindy Johanson, veep of PBS Online. She cited several recent examples, including episodes of “Frontline” and “Nova,” where producers used viewers’ e-mails to redirect the focus of shows. PBS Online attracts nearly 5.1 million Internet users per month.

Internet mavens will continue to spin off Web sites that are based on network shows and that also offer original content.

After the success of “Homicide: Second Shift,” based on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” NBC.com plans to continue integrating TV shows and the Web; its next project, to be launched next month, is based on the TNBC teen Saturday morning lineup.

” ‘Homicide’ was a learning experience for us,” said Lisa Crane, general manager of NBC.com.

Although studies show that people with computers are watching less TV, the impact is not scaring networks.

“People are not saying they won’t watch their televisions anymore,” Crane said. “It’s not something that keeps us up at night.”

And with thousands of Web sites barraging Internet users, future Web ventures will also have to focus their businesses and become more innovative.

“The problem is, you see companies that do cool stuff but nobody really wants it,” said Larry Kramer, prexy and CEO of CBS MarketWatch.com.

Adds Cuban, “You have to invent new territory. The ‘Net is a marathon sprint. You have to move fast. Someone always wants your customers.”

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