WebTV spins Eye deal for interactive shows

Deal to begin with fall season, involve comedies and dramas

Microsoft’s WebTV Networks has struck a deal with CBS, its first major primetime interactive programming alliance with a television network.

The deal to be announced today with CBS begins with the fall season and will be the first to involve primetime scripted comedies and dramas. It will also cover sports programming.

Neither CBS nor WebTV would name the specific shows that will feature interactive program enhancements, but there is a minimum commitment for at least 500 hours of enhanced programming this season.

The most obvious opportunities for program enhancements such as viewer participation through polls, chat rooms and instant messaging will be shows such as “Survivor II” and, if renewed for a second season, “Big Brother.”

“This alliance will move the reality of interactive television to a new level and as a result will help CBS offer our viewers new and exciting ways to experience our programming,” said Leslie Moonves, prexy and CEO, CBS Television.

Although Microsoft’s Internet-based system displayed on TV has had deals for some time with NBC and Fox, the NBC relationship has been primarily related to news programming and some college football and NBA playoffs, while the Fox pact has been restricted to Major League Baseball. Fox offers interactive components to its weekly baseball games.

Pop-ups prove popular

With Fox, NBC and many cable networks and syndicated programming, WebTV currently offers 700 hours of interactive programming per week. WebTV prexy and co-founder Bruce Leak said that one-third of all WebTV users who saw one of the pop-up icons offering an interactive option to a program, chose to go interactive.

WebTV has more than 1 million subs. Microsoft also said Wednesday that it also plans to incorporate digital TV software into the next version of its Windows operations system for PCs.

Through the deal, CBS will also have the ability to run promotions for its programming either as a component of the enhancements or in bumper spots that run as the user is being connected to the interactive service.

WebTV uses an open standard for interactive TV that can be used by any company. WebTV provides the technical and production support for interactive programming, while CBS, like NBC and Fox, will determine and create specific program enhancements.

The most popular interactive programming so far has been the play-along features of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!,” during which users can compete in real-time with the contestants on the shows and/or other WebTV users.

Leak said Microsoft is continuing to talk with ABC about a relationship, but that even though the network clearly sees the promise of interactive TV with its Internet-only initiatives, “they just haven’t locked in on the one-screen solution.”

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