Fan-friendly field recognized

Emmy’s going interactive.

It may have taken animated movies decades before receiving their own Oscar category, but the fledgling interactive-television market already has a chance to walk home with its own award at the TV biz’s annual kudofest.

In March, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences created the outstanding achievement in interactive television programming category, which recognizes interactive content that is closely tied to a show and is nationally available on a technology platform — such as a cable set-top box or the Internet.

New award is the brain child of members of the Academy’s interactive media peer group, made up of iTV players from around the U.S. who began meeting in 2000. The group proposed the category in February.

Current iTV fare operates like a Web site, enabling viewers to interact directly with live TV programming and do everything from learn more about characters, sports stats or other related information to shop, email or play games.

The Game Show Network, Turner Networks, ESPN, the Weather Channel, Discovery Networks have led the way in making their programming interactive. CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio,” ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Alias,” as well as Comedy Central’s “Beat the Geeks,” among many others, have become clickable.

However, the timing of the kudo, to be bestowed at this year’s Prime Time Emmy Awards, comes as interactive television and its programming are struggling to gain mass acceptance among viewers.

Tech glitches

One major reason is that the iTV biz has been slowed by competing technical standards among cable providers. Too many interactive products have confused consumers and not allowed one service to pull ahead of any other, creating major hiccups for giants such as Microsoft and AOL who have attempted to launch services such as WebTV, UltimateTV and AOLTV. They couldn’t attract more than 1 million subscribers apiece.

Elsewhere, an estimated 19 million homes are fragmented among cable operators, with Wink, OpenTV or Liberate-powered iTV services available on only certain cable systems or from satcaster DirecTV. Roughly 150 companies are attempting to become players in the iTV space, creating programming or the technology to run it.

It’s because of this that an actual Emmy statuette will not be handed out, but rather a plaque. The interactive nod is an area award, which means no noms will be announced; instead, one, more than one, or no awards will be presented.

“Because it’s so new, we wanted to get out in front and recognize interactive TV,” said Acad awards VP John Leverence in announcing the new category. “But the board felt an Emmy statuette at this stage in the game was not appropriate.”

Many analysts are predicting 2002 to be the year that iTV begins taking off with auds.

Forrester Research, a technology consulting company, estimates that by the end of this year, about 15% of the 105 million United States TV households will have some kind of interactive service — almost double last year’s number.

Most of the expected growth will occur after cable TV operators roll out next-generation set-top boxes that are not only less expensive but incorporate personal video recorder and interactive capabilities, gaining mass acceptance some time in 2006.

Shawn Hardin, a governor for the TV Acad’s Interactive Media Peer Group, doesn’t believe finding a winner will be a problem. “There’s some compelling, creative work out there. It’s touching a broader, more diverse audience every year.”

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