NAB told 2000 is year for interactive

1.4 bil digital TVs to be in homes by 2005

LAS VEGAS — The Internet may finally be the force that reverses the still slow deployment of interactive TV services in 2000, industryites forecasted at the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab on Wednesday.

“2000 is the year,” said Richard Fisher, prexy of RespondTV, which is building a biz around selling products through interactive overlays during a show’s broadcast. “The Internet is the fuel and we will all leverage Internet technologies by Microsoft and Liberate (among others) to deploy our services.”

RespondTV found tests successful when it partnered with Dominos Pizza, CDNow and the World Wrestling Federation to sell products during broadcasts of a “Star Trek” marathon, a Melissa Etheridge concert and a wrestling event, garnering response rates as high as 46%.

Old promises

Until now, interactive TV ventures have long promised to enable consumers to purchase the clothing worn by their favorite characters on “Friends” or order a car through the click of a button on their remotes.

But the high cost of digital set-top boxes to carry the software needed to offer the functions and slow bandwidth has limited rollouts to consumers.

So far, Microsoft TV’s WebTV and digital video recorder companies TiVo and RelayTV have been the first to hit the U.S. market in a major way but sales for their devices have still been slow. OpenTV has found its niche in Europe, with its software used by over 1 million subscribers.

A drop in costs and more interactive and Internet-like features are now only expected to raise those numbers, panelists said during a day-long discussion on enhanced TV at NAB in Las Vegas.

Digital forecast

Nearly 149 million digital set-top boxes and 1.4 billion TVs are forecasted to be installed in homes by 2005. All will need content.

However, “all things have to stand the test of consumer acceptance,” said Mitchell Kertzman, CEO of Liberate Technologies, which provides interactive TV software to set-top boxes, including America Online’s soon to roll out AOL TV service.

“Consumers don’t care about technology but content,” he said. “The Internet is key to this. This is happening. The question is, will it happen with you or to you? Instead of viewing the Internet as a threat, you could embrace it, because if you don’t, your competitors will use it.”

Although analysts have said that Microsoft needs to step into the content creation game to boost its WebTV platform, Phil Goldman, veep of Microsoft’s TV Platform Group, stressed that the software giant is “staying out of the content creation game and is trying to jumpstart this business.”

“We want to make TV more useful, fun and engaging,” he said.

Playing on “Sesame St.”

During his keynote, Liberate’s Kertzman demonstrated an interactive version of “Sesame Street” created by Liberate and the Children’s Television Workshop Online, enabling preschoolers to play along with characters of the show as it airs.

Stephen Gass, group prexy, Children’s Television Workshop Online, said, “The enhancements made possible by companies like Liberate Technologies will enable Sesame Street to offer more real-time new media materials to our fans that will make learning even more interactive and fun. We look forward to offering more broadband-based programming to our audience as the technology becomes more accessible.”

Earlier in the day, Yahoo! co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang said “success on the Internet is dependent on partnerships” and that the Web will create new forms of distribution for content on such devices as Palm Pilots and cell phones in a convergent marketplace.

And driving convergence, Yang said, is digitalization of technologies, greater bandwidth and mobility of the Web outside of the PC.

Millions on ’Net

Already 101 million people in the U.S. use the Internet. That number is expected to jump to 197 million by 2003. Worldwide figures by that time are expected to hit 602 million people.

New wireless gadgetry, especially portable devices like the Palm Pilot, are expected to lead to the increase.

“There will be more ways to access content and that will entice people to go online,” Yang said.

Yahoo! is next readying to repeat the success of its Victoria’s Secret Webcast two years ago after the Super Bowl with a second broadcast during this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

New broadcast, which will enable more viewers to watch this time, will also include chat, auctions and e-commerce features.

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