events

The 2nd Annual [itvt] Awards for Leadership in Interactive Television

-Keynote Speakers
-Recipients of the 2004/2005 Awards
-ITV All-Star Award Recipients
-Tracy Swedlow's Opening Address
-The Judges
-Special Thanks


On the evening of Tuesday, April 5th, just after the closing general session of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's (NCTA) National Show, [itvt] teamed once again with the NCTA to produce the 2nd Annual Awards for Leadership in Interactive Television at San Francisco's Moscone Center. Anywhere between 300 and 500 people attended the event, which was preceded by a cocktail reception in the modernist environs of the Moscone West building, overlooking the San Francisco skyline. Live music was provided by flamenco guitarist, Jorge Licieaga, and attendees enjoyed a variety of locally produced artisanal food and drink, such as Anchor Steam beer and Louis J. Martini wine. Demonstrations of the latest interactive technologies were presented by Alticast, AgileTV, Dfilm and SMS Media Network (Alphabit).

After 45 minutes or so of networking and socializing, attendees moved to the room where the awards ceremony was to be held, which was decorated with modern TV light box sculptures from noted local artist, Steve Boverie. The ceremony began with the showing of a short video showcasing some of the best interactive TV applications and programming of the past year from around the world. [itvt]'s founder and editor-in-chief, Tracy Swedlow, then gave a short introductory address (see below), and the event's keynote speeches and award presentations began: awards were presented to five individuals who have demonstrated leadership in the interactive TV industry over the past year, and to two "ITV All-Stars," recognized for their long-term track record of leadership in the ITV industry. The recipients of the awards were selected by an international panel of 28 expert judges from nominations submitted by [itvt]'s readership. Of course, we were not able to recognize many other very deserving individuals who have contributed greatly to the interactive television medium, but we hope to see these people honored with ITV Leadership Awards in the coming years.

The awards ceremony featured music composed by prominent local musician, Nik Phelps (who, among other things, has recorded with Tom Waits), and played by a band, Sprocket Ensemble, that features some of the Bay Area's best jazz talent.

Keynote Speakers

Robert Chua, Founder and Chairman of The Interactive Channel

Robert Chua, one of the pioneers of Asian television (among other achievements, he helped found Hong Kong's first terrestrial television station, Television Broadcasts Ltd.; developed Asia's longest-running variety show, "Enjoy Yourself Tonight"; started his own production company, Robert Chua Production House, which in 1979 became the first foreign TV production and advertising company to enter the mainland China market, and which in 1984 became the first company to distribute foreign television programs in mainland China; and founded a Chinese-language family entertainment channel, China Entertainment Television Broadcast--CETV--which is transmitted via satellite to 33 million households in China and the rest of Asia, and which was sold to Time Warner in 2003), recalled how he had promised his wife, when he sold CETV, that he would "semi-retire," but in fact was soon "working harder than ever" developing plans for a new channel. In order to differentiate the new channel from the hundred or so other channels available in Hong Kong, he explained, he decided that it should be a "cross-media interactive channel" that would "bring together TV, Internet and mobile." The Interactive Channel (TIC), as the new channel was called, would "allow viewers to interact using the Internet and mobile SMS, without the need for a set-top box; allow viewers to use SMS to play games on the TV or give feedback on TV shows, and allow viewers to appear on TV using Webcam, video phone or 3G phones." Chua played video clips of the new channel (which launched last December), explaining how the screen could be divided into up to six sub-screens: a feed from the studio, a chatroom, a feed from a viewer Webcam, video phone or 3G phone, a live vote, and dynamic banner ads. He concluded by explaining how the channel is designed to generate revenue not only from advertising, but from SMS charges and from "play points" which viewers can purchase on the Internet in order to interact with the channel. In thanking Chua for his presentation, [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow noted that she knows of no other channel whose content is so completely driven by its audience.

Mark Hess, Senior Vice President of Digital Television, Comcast Cable

Comcast's Mark Hess (he is responsible for the development and deployment of the MSO's new and enhanced video products and services, including VOD, PVR/DVR and interactive TV) gave a short, witty speech studded with self-deprecating humor: "Honestly, if I'd have known there were going to be this many people here tonight, I never would have agreed to do this," he began his presentation. He compared interactive TV in the US to the Loch Ness Monster, rumored to exist but hard to find--at least until recently. And he offered an interesting theory to explain why ITV in the US has lagged many other countries: the early availability here of multichannel television had rendered unnecessary the development of proto-ITV services, such as Teletext. "Rather than having Teletext to get your weather information, like in the UK, we simply had a weather channel, or rather than using Teletext or something like it to get your news, we created news channels," he said. "This was partly because of the US's 50 to 60-year love affair with moving pictures." In light of this "love affair," he continued, ITV is most likely to succeed in the US if it is televisual: "If I have anything to say to those that are building apps out there as we speak, it's don't forget to include video in it," he said. "Because that is what America loves." America's love of moving images was also why Comcast decided to focus its interactive efforts initially on VOD, he explained. Hess went on to explain that he believes "this year could be the year of interactive television" in the US--the year in which "we're finally going to wrestle that Loch Ness Monster down"--because "we're now on the verge of having a platform. One of the key things that was announced this week by GuideWorks, for example," he continued, "was that the next version of its guide will have open API's that application providers can work with. Then there's OCAP. If you go to the show floor, you'll see that OCAP is real. The reason we made the decision to purchase the assets of Liberate was to get more software engineers around that platform." He concluded by stating that Comcast and the other US cable MSO's plan to "take the learnings from the people that have done ITV in Europe" and push to create video-rich ITV that will appeal to a US audience.

Scott Higgins, Director of Interactive Programming, EchoStar

Playing on the metaphor that Comcast's Mark Hess had employed in his speech, Scott Higgins pointed out that EchoStar has been offering interactive TV for some time now: "I love hearing Mark--he's a smarter man than I'll ever be," he said, "but I am your Loch Ness Monster, because we are real. We take great pride in what we've done." He added that interactivity has not only helped EchoStar reduce churn, but has actually helped it drive subscriptions. While acknowledging Hess's points about the necessity of having a stable platform for ITV, Higgins argued that the importance of developing reliable applications should not be overlooked--because television is not as fault-tolerant a medium as the Internet: "We're in TV, we're not the Web," he said. "So you have to have 100 percent success. You cannot have your service go down. The first thing that will kill ITV is when, all of a sudden, your customer support group starts calling with uncommon trends because the data for your weather application is not running. So, once the product is launched, you've got to keep going back and checking it. Because, as you all know, it is the consumer that's going to decide if ITV is successful."

Ryan O'Hara, President of TVG Network

Ryan O'Hara began by stressing the importance of BSkyB's successful and long-standing implementation of interactive TV to the industry as a whole (note: O'Hara was formerly director of interactive TV strategy and development at BSkyB: among other things, he was responsible for integrating Open? a 400-person company which BSkyB purchased in June, 2000, and which became the core of the company's ITV operations): "Sky's been seen for a while as the gold standard for interactive TV," he said, " And the fact that ITV has worked in the UK, and that Sky has done it so well makes the US players more comfortable with it. If it had never worked in the UK, its prospects would be kind of iffy." He added that there are three things that have made Sky a beacon to the ITV industry: "The first is that they do hundreds of millions of dollars a year in interactive revenues--you can't argue with a revenue stream like that," he said. "The second factor is churn: Sky's churn is just 10 percent, whereas most domestic or international cable or satellite operators hover around 22 to 25 percent. While part of that is that they have a great suite of channels, and part of it is marketing, at least a couple of percentage points of that churn reduction are due to interactive television." Thirdly, he said, Sky has not only developed numerous interactive applications of its own, but has "cut reasonable deals" with broadcasters, making it easier for the latter to offer "creative interactivity," and has also "let the small guys on their platform. The small guys," he continued, "are often very innovative, and this pushes everybody else, so the ITV services on the platform get better and better."

After giving an overview of TVG's own recent launch of an ITV wagering and information service on EchoStar's DISH network, a move which he said had been strongly supported by the latter ("We had a partner in DISH that was hungry and aggressive, and that really wanted to work with us," he recalled. "As badly as we wanted to launch the service, they were pushing us to develop it, hit deadlines and be ready to go"), O'Hara went on to outline some of the risks currently facing interactive TV: "One of the risks is that the multiple interdependencies that exist could potentially squash interactive television," he said. "You have the content players, you have the software players in the middle, and you have the distributors. So it's tough getting the deals done, if you don't have people who are reasonable and who really want to do something. The second risk factor is that venture capital companies in the US won't touch interactive television, because they think that the bigger players will capture the value. If you don't have new, outside-the-box thinking and R&D spending, and you just rely on the giants to deliver product, this could squash innovation. Thirdly," he continued, "we have to be aware that the TV will never be the PC, and that trying to compete with the PC is a losing game. I think we have to be very careful that we don't try to create dumb computer applications for the TV. They'll fail. Lastly--though I think this is something we can reverse--I don't think there are enough true ITV success stories in the US yet. While the guides have done well, I think we need more applications that are as successful as the ones offered by Sky." Nevertheless, O'Hara continued, "there are smart, creative, well-funded companies really focused on ITV, and that's important in any industry." In addition, he argued, innovation in interactive TV going forward will be driven by companies currently outside the television space: "I think the competition for the consumer is going to be fierce," he said. "You're going to see the game console guys do some innovative things, for example, and you're going to see the Yahoos of the world do innovative things in broadband. As an industry, whether we're distributors or content providers, we're going to be forced to be innovative in order to keep the leadership position. So, all said, I'm bullish, and I'm happy to be part of this industry with all you guys."