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Issue 5.92 Part 2 | March 21, 2005 Subscribe: go to www.itvt.com

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[itvt] and the NCTA Present

[itvt] is proud to partner with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) to produce the 2nd Annual [itvt] Awards for Leadership in Interactive Television at the 2005 National Show.

The awards will honor the individuals who continue to drive the interactive television industry around the world. Held this year in San Francisco, the birthplace of television, the awards event will celebrate the legacy and the bright future of interactive TV.

The event will include food and drinks, high-level speakers, video presentations of past and current ITV projects, and, of course, the presentation of the Awards for Leadership in Interactive Television, voted on by [itvt] readers and a panel of industry experts. Attendees will have the opportunity to re-connect with old friends and colleagues, and to find out about the latest ITV technologies and content projects.

Interview: Asian TV Pioneer, Robert Chua, Founder of The Interactive Channel

Robert Chua is often described as one of the pioneers of Asian television. In 1967, he helped start up Hong Kong's first terrestrial TV station, Television Broadcasts (TVB), where he created the show, "Enjoy Yourself Tonight," which was not only the first program broadcast live in Hong Kong, but eventually became Asia's longest running variety show. In 1974, he started his own production company, Robert Chua Production House (RCP), which in 1979 became the first foreign TV production and advertising company to enter the mainland China market. In 1994, he founded China Entertainment Television Broadcast (CETV), a Chinese-language family entertainment channel which is transmitted via satellite throughout China and the rest of Asia, and in which media giant Time Warner acquired a majority stake in June, 2000.

Late last year, Chua soft-launched The Interactive Channel (TIC), a 24/7 cable channel that is notable for its cross-media approach to ITV and for the degree to which it allows viewers to participate in its programming. He recently spoke to [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow about his reasons for launching the channel, about its business model, about his future plans for it, and more.

[itvt]: What made you decide to start The Interactive Channel, Robert?

Chua: Well, you see, I've been in television 41 years, now, and I've always been able to predict or foresee the future of the medium. I've done a lot of successful shows in the past, and I think my record shows that I can read what viewers' needs are: I feel that this is definitely a time when people want to interact more if they can. Part of this is the influence of the Internet, which has made people more accepting of interactivity. So, I think it's the right time for the new channel, because interactive TV is here to stay. Viewers no longer want to be passive.

[itvt]: Which operators are currently carrying it?

Chua: HK Cable TV, which has 680,000 households, and HK Broadband TV, which has nearly 50,000 households. So this gives The Interactive Channel over 700,000 households.

[itvt]: Where did the idea for The Interactive Channel come from?

Chua: It just came to me, when I decided I wanted to do something interactive. So I just went ahead. I think the timing is right, and I believe I have some sort of instinct. So I started it with my own money, just like when I started the satellite TV channel, CETV--though, of course, I ran into a lot of financial difficulties with CETV, so we moved slower than we should have; however I was lucky in that I later managed to get Time Warner involved in that project. Of course, if I find a good partner to come into The Interactive Channel, I think we'll be able to move much faster there, too: a lot of things can be done if you have more money--for example for a marketing budget.

[itvt]: How much money did it take to launch the new channel?

Chua: It cost over ? million to get it started, and, of course, a lot of work: we started working on it full time early last year, and I've been spending all my time developing it.

[itvt]: Why did you decide to start it with your own money?

Chua: I didn't want to have investment bankers coming in who would only want to look at figures. People ask me, "Robert, let me have a business plan. We'd like to participate." I say to them, "There is no business plan. This is only for people who have a vision." I now have the technology and the actual channel in place running 24/7 to show them, but no revenues to show right now--though, of course, I know where the revenue streams will come from.

[itvt]: I understand you eventually want to export the channel to other countries, correct?

Chua: Yes. I want to license the channel as a turnkey operation, including both its format and its platform. It would include everything: templates, technology, program formats, and so on.

[itvt]: And have you seen any interest in such an offering?

Chua: Yes. A company in Korea approached me very early and signed an MOU to do a channel like this one. And we're also in talks with a company in China, and there's interest from a couple of Asian cable networks: we'll provide them with templates and formats, and they'll put local content into it.

[itvt]: Do you think the channel is appropriate for the US and European markets?

(Continued below...)


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Chua: I think it is appropriate for all markets. Take, for example, our multi-screen talk show format, "iTalk." It's appropriate for any country, because what it does is simply ensure that a talk show is topical and driven by the interests of the audience, whatever those might be. It allows viewers to, for example, text in their questions, or to chat in the chat-room section of the screen. Viewers can also call in with their videophone or 3G phone, and get their picture on the TV screen as they ask questions and chat with the show's host and guests. Internet users can text in messages to the chat room, and also appear on TV using their Webcam to chat with the host and guests. As a result, the host can see what's going on, and can ask or answer relevant questions as the show progresses. And, at the same time, you have real-time voting, so the audience and the hosts can know instantly where the votes are going for the subject they're talking about.

[itvt]: So your live shows allow viewers to send messages that then appear on the TV screen?

Chua: Yes. You can send messages using both SMS and the Internet: you and I could be communicating on the TV, and you could be sending messages from the Internet and I could be sending SMS messages.

[itvt]: Before we began this interview, you sent us a screenshot of iTalk. Could you go through it and explain what's happening on each of the six screens or "boxes" as I think you call them?

Chua: Yes. Box 1 is the chatroom box--it's where Internet users and mobile SMS users can send in their messages. Box 2 is where viewers can see their picture live on TV, if they call in by Webcam, videophone, or 3G phone. Box 3 is for voting by Internet and SMS. Box 4 is for banner adverts or promotional stills. Box 5 is for text messages that The Interactive Channel scrolls to its viewers. And Box 6 is the studio floor.

[itvt]: Can you send in messages using the remote control?

Chua: Right now, we're working with an operator here in Hong Kong, so that we can have certain applications for the channel on the set-top box, such as voting. But my vision for the channel isn't centered around the set-top box. I want the channel to be available to everyone, and I don't want to have to work to make it compatible with all the different set-top boxes that are out there. This is why the channel is designed to let people participate via SMS and the Internet. We are a completely cross-media interactive TV channel, and I believe we are the only one in the world right now. Actually, to further this goal, we're talking to a radio station right now, that would host a radio show on our channel.

[itvt]: How has viewer response been so far to the new channel?

Chua: Everyone who sees it likes it. Though, actually, to be honest with you, we're still in the early stages of doing this right now. We're not marketing it yet. So in Hong Kong not many people know about it, just yet. We've done no marketing or advertising whatsoever. But, as I said, everyone who's seen it has liked it. So that in itself is very positive for me.

[itvt]: Are you finding that the channel's interactive talk shows are attracting a lot of repeat-users or regulars?

Chua: Yes. There are some regulars. Our technology allows us to identify people coming in, so we know who the callers are and so on. Of course, we cannot divulge or resell any of this information, because it's our policy to keep all this confidential. But we do know who is participating and who is participating more.

[itvt]: In addition to talk shows, what other content does the channel carry?

Chua: Other than the live shows, there are SMS-controlled games. Although these have been available for some time already in Europe, this is the first time they've been offered in Hong Kong. So people in Hong Kong are experiencing something totally new for them. As I just mentioned, many of our shows let people appear on TV via their Webcams--and, of course, all this, along with SMS and Internet voting and on-screen chat, is all very new to people in Hong Kong. We're also going to be doing match-making, some type of interactive dating show. We want it to be serious: we don't want to do another of those silly dating shows. We want serious people who are looking for friends to be able to post their picture up on the TV and talk to other people. What such a show would do is take Internet dating to the next level. So people who are using the service on the Internet will see an alert on the screen letting them know that, at a certain time of the day, the service will be live on TV and so they'll be able to interact with more people.

Also, on March 27th, we will be launching "iAdult," a one-and-a-half-hour late night talk show that you could say is a cross between Dr. Ruth and Dr. Phil. We are also planning to air a "Happy Hour" chat show targeted partly at drinkers at home, but especially at drinkers in bars during the bars' happy hour.

[itvt]: I understand you have an interactive show targeted at disabled people, correct?

Chua: Yes. It's called "I Reach Out," and it allows blind, deaf and dumb people to communicate on television.

[itvt]: As far as I know, it's the only interactive show targeted at the disabled.

Chua: Right. That's true.

[itvt]: Has it proven successful?

Chua: The viewership was starting to go up. But the problem was that, unfortunately, the disabled organizations in Hong Kong are very disorganized, and they were not really giving it support--although disabled people who used it seemed to like it and participated in it. We aired it for a month or two, but for the moment it is in hiatus. I couldn't get any funding to really sustain it, and I had to underwrite it myself. Among other things, the format allows non-disabled people to watch the show and understand what's going on, and also to learn some sign language as you watch more of the show.

[itvt]: What other interactive content are you planning to launch?

Chua: I have a proposal that I've been showing to potential advertisers. Take a supermarket, for example: I could give one a half-hour slot at 8:00 every morning, which they could then use to show people all their special offers for that day. Then viewers could call or SMS in to ask questions about the offers and the supermarket's products in general, and the supermarket could, in effect, chat with the public. The program could also serve as "customer service" for the company, allowing it to hear people's compliments or complaints. Another thing I'm trying to do is a video social page, where people could pay a fee to have us shoot, for example, a video of their mother's birthday party and put it on TV. Or we could shoot and air people's weddings, so that they could tell their friends, "If you can't come to our wedding, you can see it on TV or the Internet." When we were shooting it, we'd do interviews. For example, we might interview a couple who are getting married, and ask the groom, "How did you woo your wife?" He might say, for example, "I gave her 100 roses every week," and the audience will be very touched by him--far more than if we were interviewing a movie star, who might give the same answer, but who probably wouldn't be believed. People want to see real people on TV, and see how they celebrate major events in their lives. Actually, we'd prefer it if people shot these videos themselves, as that helps ensure that we get something real. We'd have commentators on the show, discussing the videos, and the viewers would be able to send in SMS greetings to the people whose videos were featured on the show. This video social page project is something that I really want to do. I like it, among other reasons, because it's very localized.

[itvt]: How will the channel generate revenues?

Chua: From revenue sharing with the mobile phone operators, from traditional television advertising, and from banner adverts. As well as from program sponsorship, like I just described with the supermarket program. As far as advertisements are concerned, during a show, advertisements will appear on one of the six screens, but between shows they will be full-screen. We also will make money from what we call "play points," which viewers can purchase on our Internet menu: if you want to participate in the channel you buy these play points for HK$0.50 per point--you can buy them in bulk, so HK$100 would get you 200 points.

[itvt]: And these play points are only used when you want to participate in the channel via the Web, correct?

Chua: Yes. If you're participating via mobile, you're billed by the operator, and we and the operator share revenues.

[itvt]: Any other sources of revenue?

Chua: We can make money from downloads, such as mobile ringtones and screensavers. We also eventually plan to make money from home shopping. However, it would be a little different from other home shopping services, because people would be able to interact, sending text to the screen either by SMS or by the Internet.

[itvt]: How many people are currently working at The Interactive Channel?

Chua: Fewer than 20.

[itvt]: Are there any other projects you are currently working on?

Chua: Among other things, I'm talking to a terrestrial TV station, hoping to work out a deal with them to broadcast an interactive TV format. I'd be bringing something new to them and they'd share my costs. Such a deal would make interactive TV available to everybody in Hong Kong. There's also a telco in Hong Kong called CSL that wants us to make available two- or three-minute clips of the highlights of our show, "iTalk," every night, so that people can watch them on their 3G phones the next morning. We should be ready to do this by next month. In addition, I am developing a quiz/game show to be played and viewed by 3G subscribers only. I do not know if anyone has ever created such a show that allows only 3G users to participate or click into their personal 3G to view the show--as one would on TV--to win prizes.



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