ITV has the interactive answer

U.K. web launches quiz channel

LONDON — It looks like ITV, Blighty’s embattled terrestrial web, may have finally found a way to make a killing from new media — and in the process teach the world a thing or two about participation TV.

Launched less than two weeks ago, ITV Play, the interactive quiz channel that gives away big money prizes to contestants who phone in via premium rate lines, is already hitting rivals.

The 11 quiz channels on satellite and cable can’t match ITV’s prizes or its high production values. Consequently, they’re seeing their call numbers fall, according to industry insiders.

Some have attracted complaints because contestants feel they have been lured into racking up big phone bills without being given a fair chance to win.

ITV Play, however, insists that it is offering “lots of opportunities to win cash in a fair, honest and transparent manner” and will adhere to high standards of customer service.

The business model behind ITV Play, which runs 16 hours a day and is advertising free, could not be simpler.

ITV pockets the lion’s share of every 60p ($1.07) call, while the remainder is divvied up between the show’s producer and the phone company.

With as many as 600,000 people ringing in at any one time, it is easy to see why ITV CEO Charles Allen is confident that Play will deliver a profit of $34 million in year one.

This is small beer compared to the coin generated by spot advertising, but as ITV seeks to create new revenue streams after failing to get on board the pay TV bandwagon, ITV Play could be the start of something big.

“For us the market is just beginning,” says ITV Play controller William Van Rest, a veteran of ancillary revenues who has worked at FremantleMedia and BSkyB, where he helped set up gambling service Sky Vegas Live.

He adds: “There is a real opportunity for ITV to lend its brand, its heritage and track record in interactive programs like ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Pop Idol” and “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!’ and move the genre to the next level.”

Due to the success of digital TV in the U.K. (around 70% of the country owns at least one digital set) interactive TV applications like ITV Play and its rivals are setting the pace for other territories, including the U.S.

One of the leading combos in the field is London-based channel operator and producer Optimistic Entertainment who set up a Los Angeles office earlier this year to make U.S. versions of its interactive fare including text message game show “PlayMania” for cable outfit GSN.

“We take our responsibilities seriously and follow a strict code of conduct,” says CEO David Brook. “We were one of the first companies to take participation TV to the U.S. market and our priority is to expand internationally because it is getting very competitive in the U.K.

“We hope to launch an international version of ‘Quiz Nation’ (a successful U.K. format) in two territories outside Europe soon.”

According to Van Rest, U.S. entertainment companies are intrigued by what ITV Play, available via broadband and digital terrestrial TV platform Freeview, is attempting.

He says: “America has always looked to Britain for interactive TV. A lot of American executives have visited the U.K. because they see it as a test market.”

It is, of course, too early to tell if ITV Play, whose biggest cash prizes are in the region of $170,000, can sustain its early promise.

Regulators are expected to keep a close watch on a service entirely funded by viewers’ phone calls, but if the upstart continues to make waves it is possible that ITV will add a gambling channel and a TV shopping service to its interactive portfolio.