Comcast, TWC Plan for EBIF
Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), the two largest MSOs in the U.S., are already laying the groundwork for EBIF, installing and enabling their networks and set-tops to accept relatively simple enhanced television applications that allow viewers to participate in polling questions, play games, request more information about advertised products, and upgrade or order cable services with the click of a remote.
EBIF will also play a big, early role in the advanced advertising service bureau under development at MSO-backed Canoe Ventures. (See Canoe Ventures: What It Is, What It Ain't and Ad Emblem .)
"All of these are being done in the EBIF language," said Mark Hess, Comcast's SVP, product development – video, during a panel session here Tuesday afternoon. "The [interactive] platform is being deployed."
Comcast, Hess said, expects to have EBIF "enabled" in 10 million homes by the end of the year and, by the middle of 2009, across all of the MSO's Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)-based footprint, equal to about 75 percent of the operator's cable properties. Comcast is also ironing out a way to run EBIF on its Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)-based systems.
Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, plans to have EBIF running in all its digital boxes sometime next year, according to TWC SVP of video product strategy Bob Benya. Still, the MSO has already introduced interactive applications (including some voting, interactive ads, and customer care apps) in virtually all of its operating divisions using some pre-standard tech.
Benya says experience at TWC has shown that consumers indeed like to interact with their televisions, and that desire increases when viewers can interact on one screen rather than having to synch up the action with a laptop or PC connected to the Internet. "When it's simple... it adds to the viewing experience," Benya said.
Among shows that support interactive polling, TWC has seen average viewer participation of 17 percent, with spikes as high as 41 percent.
Operators hope EBIF gives them a common technical platform for some of these simpler apps, allowing them and content providers to deploy them at scale. Despite the presence of a CableLabs spec, it's possible that EBIF clients used by MSOs won't be precisely uniform. Comcast's EBIF client is being developed by the TVWorks LLC joint venture with Cox Communications Inc. , and Time Warner Cable has just licensed EBIF technology from BIAP Systems Inc. Others, such as Zodiac Interactive , have developed generic EBIF players. (See Boffo for EBIF.)
The road to tru2way
Longer term, iTV plans will be centered on tru2way, a richer platform that runs on newer, more advanced digital boxes. Several major U.S. cable operators will have their headends ready for tru2way by next July. (See Revealed: The Tru2way MOU.)
Comcast is already supporting tru2way-powered TVs from Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) in Chicago and Denver, which allow customers to use the operator's interactive program guide and services like video on demand (VOD) without a separate set-top box. (See Denver, Chicago First to Get Tru2way TVs.)
Time Warner Cable is not yet supporting tru2way TVs in any of its markets on a commercial basis, but it has rolled out 1.5 million digital set-tops based on the platform. Early on those boxes are supporting Time Warner Cable's "resident" applications, including its in-house navigator, but the company hopes third parties will step up to supply new apps and services, as well. With tru2way, "the barrier to entry is sort of eliminated," Benya said.
Premium programmer Showtime Networks Inc. hopes to participate in all phases of cable's ITV evolution -- from EBIF to tru2way. It has already developed a set of apps for EBIF that allow customers to order the service or play sports trivia games that synch up to live programs.
David Preisman, vice president of interactive television for Showtime, said content developers and programmers should not expect iTV apps to start raking in the cash from day one, but called on programmers and content developers to participate early on to help hasten the evolution of the business model.
"There has to be some content out there to prime the pump," Preisman said.
"If we try to establish the perfect business model, we won't have the chicken or the egg," Hess added.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News