BROADCAST: Digital interventions - Can PR follow advertising's lead in exploiting interactive TV? Allison Giles finds out

The day ITV Digital went into administration, naysayers proclaimed the death-knell for interactive TV. But marketers continue to hold hope for the medium and are still looking at ways to capitalise on this technology, even though its future may look less enticing than before.

The ad industry has already entered the fray, with digital TV audiences experiencing interactive advertising and shopping from the sofa while watching the big match. So is it a medium that lends itself to the PR industry, and if so, is anyone taking advantage?

'Interactive TV, like the internet, should be editorially driven, and so it should be the domain of PR and not advertising. And yet I fear advertising will colonise it,' says Stuart Maister, chief executive of BroadView, a digital video consultancy.

The digital TV industry is dominated by Sky, which has 5.7 million UK subscribers. The other players - Telewest, NTL and ITV Digital - have around one million each.

Between them, these companies supply digital, and therefore potentially interactive, TV channels to about 35 per cent of the UK TV-owning population - 97 per cent of British homes have one or more TV sets.

Just under a quarter of digital subscribers - 23 per cent - use their TV interactively, according to a survey by new media ratings and measurement company Jupiter MMXI.

(If this number doesn't sound too impressive, the number of PC owners in the UK at the end of 2001 was only just over 30 per cent).

These viewers are able to pick and choose which bits of the news they want to see, which of five simultaneous tennis matches they want to watch, and which angle to enjoy the Beckham goal from. They can also order a pizza while they watch a film, see the horse race they have just (interactively) placed a bet on and pay their bills, all by using the red button on their remote.

And it is this red button that is the key to the new medium - not only how it is accessed, but also how frequently, and thus to how many successful promotions there might be using it.

'The UK is way ahead of the US in digital interactive TV partly because we are so used to using our TV remote controls to get information,' says Rebecca Bell, Burson-Marsteller technology, media and telecoms manager.

'The UK is at the forefront of digital TV globally and so it has the opportunity to be at the forefront of PR digital TV,' concurs Maister.

The interactive element of digital TV works in two ways: as a stand-alone, interactive zone where, for example, the sofa-bound can shop, bank, book holidays, play games and even send e-mails - like the internet but on your TV; and as part of the actual programmes and ads themselves. And it is within this enhanced programming and advertising that marketeers are examining promotional possibilities across the spectrum, from advertising and marketing through to PR.

Ad agencies have already started using the new technology, with, for example, ads allowing the viewer to examine a car from different angles, order a brochure or book a test-drive with a local dealer. And a recent ad campaign for Scottish Power promoted the possibility of switching energy supplier via the red button.

But despite the fact that advertisers seem to have got in there first, Maister thinks the PR potential is also huge: 'Imagine the car ad as a Top Gear type of programme - a PR company could supply information to put behind the screen that viewers could access as they do at the moment, just by clicking the red button.'

Programmers are not going to expand their budgets, he asserts, so the opportunity is there for PR companies to help broadcasters to fill the gap between the increased demand for content and the decreased ability to fulfil demand because of limited budgets and smaller programme teams at TV production companies.

There will also be possibilities for direct PR, creating TV channels or slices of content on demand. Both holidays company Thomsons and Hallmark Cards already have their own TV channels.

Bell believes that an obvious candidate to benefit from this more direct form of PR is the public sector.

Network operators, she says, are looking to form partnerships with content providers, but are reluctant to let commercial bodies provide information unless it is clearly flagged. Public sector agencies, therefore, are ideal content-provider candidates.

'Public sector organisations have been very quick to see the opportunities that lie in giving people access to real-time information and services in the comfort of their home,' she says.

For example, NHS Direct linked up with Telewest in September last year to supply interactive consultations with nurses. The service allows viewers to speak to a nurse on the phone and to see him or her on the TV, allowing the nurse to enhance the consultation by using pictures, graphics and videos. The launch coincided with the publication of ICM research, which found that seven out of ten respondents were keen to receive interactive healthcare services through their TVs.

In the commercial sector, companies such as two-year-old Citigate Broadcast, which has its own in-house three-camera studio, is already supplying video copy to broadcast news programmes. The potential exists to extend this to an interactive format, with client interviewees able to participate in debates offline with radio and TV audiences.

'The next step is interactive,' says Citigate Broadcast executive Matthew Fletcher-Jones. 'There are so many stations, and they need content. An interview with co-founder Martha Lane Fox could have a link to the website as well as offline question-and-answer sessions.'

Across the commercial sector, brand managers are trying to create 'interactive brand experiences' offering viewers access to additional information, opportunities to sign up for trials and take part in promotions and competitions.

As these activities traditionally fall in the remit of the PRO, some cross-fertilization is going to be necessary, Bell believes.

But as with the web, the potential is so huge that it's difficult to know where to begin, and how to measure effectiveness.

'As a sales route, it has potential, and the industry is agreed that T-commerce (as in TV-commerce) has potential,' Bell says. 'There is the opportunity to set up interactive competitions and promotions, as in other media, but I wouldn't focus on it for a client at the moment.'

There is no precedent, and so practically speaking, where would a PRO with an idea for some exciting interactive content go to try to get the message across? To the programme's editor, the channel operator, the platform owner, the technical expert at the production company making the programme?

As with any medium, it is important to assess the audience, and target your content accordingly. But still, there is no guarantee you'll actually even reach them.

'Just because you have information sitting behind a button, it doesn't mean the viewer is going to click.

They have to be really interested to stop viewing - it's a real leap of faith,' says Bell.

Potential difficulties surrounding getting your content on air pale somewhat alongside other thorny issues - namely the revenue stream with companies yet to see return on investment for interactive services, and the question of whether or not the viewer will even bother to click to see your carefully prepared and targeted dollop of information.

Nonetheless, the attractions of interactive TV as a medium are compelling, and it's not one the PR industry can afford to ignore.

Internet penetration is never going to be 100 per cent, whereas TV nearly is - a fact acknowledged by Microsoft, which is testing its own interactive software designed especially for TV.

This penetration also means that we are happy using the technology, clicking the button and sourcing information through the TV, so there isn't going to be a steep learning curve for the potential customer to scale.

In addition, it is a medium to which the Government is committed, with its stated aim of switching off analogue TV by 2010, or 2006 if there has been a sufficient take-up of digital TV (which since iTV Digital's fate is now in question).

Potential problems such as the increased cost to the content-provider - the PR company or department - of supplying content to three different platform providers (satellite, cable and terrestrial) are being addressed, with ad agencies in mainland Europe using technology enabling them to produce one single format for multiple platforms.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty within the UK PR industry as to how exactly interactive TV will figure in a PR strategy, and many players, even those involved in broadcast PR, are unsure how it could work for their clients.

Lansons Communications broadcast manager Lyndsay Haywood says: 'What will the broadcasters do? If they will do an advice page, we can contribute to that, but a lot of them all seem to be looking at each other and not knowing what to do to fill this potentially huge content vacuum. We need guidance from them on how it can work editorially.'

PR companies are going to have to expand their skills, or at least their contact-base. More content will need to be supplied on video. PROs are probably also going to be working much closer with their advertising and marketing colleagues.

'It's been widely acknowledged that branded TV content and channels are not too far away,' Bell says. 'This type of content or channel could become the ultimate advertorial vehicle of the future.'

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