FOCUS: INTERACTIVE TELEVISION - Approaching TV from a new angle - Television is getting more interesting, for viewers and the broadcast PR sector. Mary Cowlett investigates the development of interactive broadcasting and the wealth of opportunities it off

While most people view television as a passive, relaxing activity, the use of narrower digital signals on the broadcasting spectrum means TV is about to get seriously strenuous.

While most people view television as a passive, relaxing activity,

the use of narrower digital signals on the broadcasting spectrum means

TV is about to get seriously strenuous.



On Sunday, 22 August, Sky Digital broadcast the world’s first

interactive football match between Premiership giants Arsenal and

Manchester United.



Viewers were able to see instant replays, different camera angles and

flick to on-screen match facts, all at the touch of a button on their

remote controls.



By integrating telephone lines into this equation, Sky Digital is also

launching its Open channel - a joint venture between BSkyB, BT, the HSBC

banking group and technology company Matsushita - later this month. This

will enable people to buy groceries and CDs, book holidays and theatre

tickets, or even do their banking from the comfort of their sofa.



Companies which have so far signed up to Open include Woolworths,

Iceland, Somerfield 24-7, Going Places, Next, Argos, Dixons, WH Smith

and Carphone Warehouse. The 24-hour service will also allow access to

BT’s Talk 21 e-mail service.



Other broadcasters with interactive TV, or iTV, on the horizon include

Cable and Wireless, which is already testing its Two Way TV in

Manchester.



This service will initially allow viewers to send e-mail and access a

’walled garden’ of around 100 web sites, before offering enhanced TV

services in January. Also starting next year, cable company Telewest

will have its own iTV service, with home shopping, on-line computer

games, CDs and videos. Similarly, OnDigital will be launching e-mail by

the end of the year and e-commerce at the start of 2000.



The main aim of these interactive services is to part viewers from their

money. But, as the technology embraces more mainstream programming,

broadcast PROs will have a host of new opportunities to take brand

messages to a TV audience.



’PR is in the driving seat,’ says Anthony Hayward, group chief executive

of Bulletin International. ’Providing content - be it video,

programming, comment, graphics, stills, background information, text and

so on, is a great way to promote PR messages. For those that can get it

right, iTV offers huge possibilities.’



As an example, Hayward cites the launch of Sainsbury’s Microban range of

anti-bacterial products in the mid-1990s, which gained massive coverage

from news, lifestyle and cookery programmes.



’In future, as the presenter discusses the benefits of using

anti-bacterial products, viewers with iTV would expect to be able to

click their remotes and pull up a detailed feature on safety in the home

and perhaps a more techie piece on how anti-bacterial products are

made,’ he says. ’That’s before they have even considered buying them via

the TV.’



However, before broadcast PROs contemplate selling the benefits of iTV

to clients, there are still hurdles to overcome within the broadcast

industry itself. Richard Pemberton, broadcast manager at Citigate Dewe

Rogerson, says PROs are in the same boat as advertisers - fighting the

lack of a generic UK format for electronic delivery of interactive

services.



’For example, if a client spends money on iTV for Sky Digital, then they

would have to spend the same amount of money to deliver those same

features on OnDigital and then on cable,’ he says.



Another problem is that, in the current climate, evaluating interactive

services for clients is very difficult. On-line iTV shopping providers,

such as Woolworths, can draw certain conclusions from their sales

figures, but BARB has only broad-brush viewing figures of who is

watching what on digital channels.



If a client demands details of which elements of its interactive service

were winning or losing an audience, it is impossible to tell

scientifically.



However, even when these problems have been ironed out, persuading a

client to use iTV may be difficult. ’Interactive TV means companies are

placed in a situation where they are not in control,’ says

Pemberton.



’Any spokesperson would need to be trained to talk not only to

journalists, but also as part of an on-line forum. In addition, they

would have to deal with viewers calling up and asking questions.’



This is echoed by Peter Wallace, head of broadcasting at the Press

Association.



’Interactive TV turns every viewer into a potential interviewer,’ he

says.



’Questions could be fired from the public on their sofas directly to the

studio, which means every interviewee needs to be ready to answer almost

any question coming from any quarter.’



Viewers’ perceptions of the quality and enthusiasm of such a company

spokesperson would have considerable knock-on effects. ’An interesting,

lively interview could directly influence a viewer’s decision on whether

to access the supporting on-screen information, the on-line company

brochure, or even order a product,’ says Wallace.



The main benefit of iTV for broadcast PR practitioners seems likely to

come from hard-pushed broadcasters demanding more content. Whether it is

video, comment, graphics or text, this will mean building relationships

to tailor compelling messages in an appropriate format.



At a basic level this is simply a matter of information management, but

broadcast PROs will also need to implement better media planning.



And, with the inevitable proliferation of interactive digital channels,

Stuart Maister, senior vice president of Medialink International, thinks

companies will have huge scope to develop programme sponsorship.



As an example, he cites Commercial Union’s recent tie-in with ITV’s

London’s Burning, where the insurer produced a leaflet on preventing

fires in the home. ’The opportunities to expand this sort of

relationship with additional information on-screen are enormous with

iTV,’ he says.



But once such activities enter the realm of moving images, regulatory

issues about advertising and sponsorship come into play.



The Independent Television Commission (ITC) is already addressing viewer

awareness of the difference between regulated broadcasting and the

unregulated internet. The ITC has held meetings and seminars with iTV

providers about developing principles that provide guidance, but also

allow for future broadcast changes. Later this month the commission will

issue a consultation paper on the subject.



Some within the PR industry are also cautious as to how iTV will

develop.



’I think it’s very easy to get carried away by new technology,’ says

Shandwick Broadcast managing director Tessa Curtis.



’Right now iTV is new, so most of the programmes are a bit of an unknown

quantity. Until we know the nature of the audiences, what the value to

the client will be and what the requirements are going to be, I’m not

entirely convinced.’



Still, Shandwick is far from keeping its head in the sand when it comes

to iTV; one of its clients, Abbey National, is already involved with

Open.



But with so many technical problems to overcome and couch-potato viewers

to win over, the long-term benefits of this new technology are

uncertain.



There will always be a proportion of the population who prefer not to

shop on TV - research from The Future Foundation indicates this is

currently almost 50 per cent - and many who like to consume their TV as

moving wallpaper.



However, as the experience of the internet has shown, the PR industry

needs to be prepared. The old battle for who should supply content will

be given new life.



PR is the most qualified medium to provide what is effectively editorial

content, so iTV could be a real opportunity to reinforce PR’s claim to

be the leading marketing discipline in the new information-rich

world.



LET’S GET TOGETHER: What’s on the agenda at News World 1999



Broadcast PR professionals will get a chance to mull over the

implications of new technology and rub shoulders with top international

broadcasters at a dedicated conference for PROs in this sector next

month.



From 2-5 November 1999, News World, the global summit for the news

industry is taking place in Barcelona. Now in its fifth year, the

rapidly changing world of information delivery has prompted the

organisers to hold their first dedicated PR day. This will examine the

needs of the PR industry and its relationship to the cutting edge of

electronic news.



’PR has traditionally been about print journalism, but broadcast news

needs PR and PR needs broadcast news,’ says News World International

managing director Kerry Stevenson. ’We think this is a real opportunity

for the PR community to find out about how the process of news-gathering

has changed over recent years and what the implications are.’



The day will open with an introduction by Simon Bucks, a UK broadcast

consultant who has spent 25 years in the TV news industry with ITN and

LNN, and has a firsthand understanding of the gap between news and

PR.



He will be followed by Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell, who will be

speaking on why PR needs to wake up to the opportunities offered by TV

and the internet. This will include an insight into creative approaches

to new delivery channels for the 21st century.



This topic will be expanded by ITN chief executive Stewart Purvis, who,

with a TV, radio and internet remit, will help delegates navigate the

complexities of how news providers have reinvented themselves to handle

emerging technologies.



Other speakers to watch out for include Julian Sher, the Canadian

founder of journalism.net - reportedly the world’s most popular internet

tool with journalists - and David Mannion, who is present in conjunction

with Medialink.



Mannion will address the issue of tri-mediality and the implications of

convergence, where the cross-fertilisation of TV, radio and on-line

means PROs need to tailor a one-stop press release that meets the

delivery needs of all formats.



The day will be interactive, with plenty of scope for audience

participation.



Delegates can also expect a robust send-off from former BBC News chief

and current CNN president Chris Cramer, who has forthright opinions

about the PR industry. www.newsworld.co.uk



THE INTERACTIVE REVOLUTION: In future viewers can be their own TV

producers



Analysts at Datamonitor reckon that by 2003, one in four households in

Europe and the US will have access to interactive digital television

services, with the market for iTV growing by 45 per cent each year over

the next five years.



So, what developments can we expect to see in future? Will iTV simply

fragment current TV audiences, or will it enrich our lives?



Already, companies such as Videonet are providing video-on-demand

channels, where viewers can order films to start at their convenience.

Similarly, there have been trials to add an interactive element to quiz

shows, so that viewers at home can test their knowledge against

on-screen competitors.



At the moment, the most immediate area for expansion is likely to be

sport, not least because Sky Digital has made a significant investment

in its interactive Sports Extra channel. Beyond the current football

offering, we can expect Sky to roll out interactive rugby, golf, tennis

and more.



For consumers, the key word will be choice. In this new world, viewers

will be their own producers, selecting which pieces of the action they

want and from which angle. Peter Wallace, head of broadcasting at the

Press Association, thinks that not only will there be more niche

programming, but also an element of cross-fertilisation between

media.



’Broadcasters are still developing ideas for the next generation of

services, but we can expect a number of masthead TV programmes with

print media titles appearing on digital television,’ he says. ’Good

broadcast PROs should be talking to both sides, and getting their

promotional ideas on to the programmers’ drawing boards.’ Citigate Dewe

Rogerson is already doing exactly this on behalf of clients including

investment portfolio company Close Wealth and a number of pension

providers.



The agency is in talks with Invest TV, which is looking to start

broadcasting a three hour interactive personal finance programme, Simply

Money, later this year.



There is also talk that iTV may become more ’intelligent’. ’Some people

predict that, eventually, viewers will be able to watch a programme on

the Bahamas, check their bank balance, find the best holiday deal and

pay for it all through their remote control,’ says Phil Anderson, head

of financial services at Charles Barker Europe.



’More impressive, however, is that this information will be processed

and the next advertisement to appear on their screen will be for travel

insurance.’



OPEN FOR BUSINESS: 24-hour retailing service



The arrival of the Open channel on Sky Digital has paved the way for a

two-way channel of communication for the 17-plus retailers that have

signed up to the 24-hour service. Already, the 1.2 million subscribers

to Sky Digital have automatic access to Open and this is set to increase

as the first phase of Open’s pounds 20 million push to launch its

service draws in more customers.



So how do retailers plan to use this new interactive medium to position

their brand and talk to customers creatively?



’By its nature, food shopping is quite functional and people want our

service to be straightforward and easy to use,’ says Hilary Berg, head

of PR for Iceland. On the new channel, Iceland will have a dedicated

editorial site with moving images, for product showcases, customer

recipes, competitions and information.



Providing this content will sit within the remit of the marketing

department, but Berg is adamant that her PR team will be very much

involved.



At the moment, she thinks the greatest advantage of this one-to-one

dialogue with consumers will be the opportunity to tackle the issues

that Iceland and its customers care about. ’We will have room to talk

about our cause-related marketing work and the stance we have taken

against genetically modified foods,’ she says. Open will also provide an

extra forum to discuss Iceland’s ’Fighting for better food’ campaign,

which from 1 October will mean all own-label products are free from

artificial colourings and flavourings.



Other Open retailers are primarily addressing issues of

infrastructure.



According to Woolworths spokesman Mike McGann, the retailer is focusing

on ensuring that it actually delivers on its service promises to

customers, but on-line independent CD, video and games reviews may be in

the pipeline soon.



Banking giant HSBC, which sets up shop on Open later this month, has big

plans to differentiate its brand on-line. Since the beginning of

September the bank has used Charles Barker to create a launch event

featuring former Eastender-turned-pop star Martine McCutcheon. It has

also developed four humorous on-line scenarios, including Tara the party

girl, who checks her bank balance before she goes out for the evening,

to reinforce the benefits of its service.



’As the first bank to offer telephone banking, ten years down the line

it’s quite appropriate that we are the first to offer our services on

television,’ says HSBC media relations manager Nicolette Dawson.



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