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Winter Games Go Interactive… for Some TV Viewers

About 40 million U.S. cable, satellite, and telco TV viewers will have access to interactive programming from the Winter Olympics, beginning tonight, including "mosaic" channels that will allow viewers to scan six live feeds from NBC Universal 's stable of networks covering the Vancouver Games.

But despite advances the cable industry has made in recent years with interactive TV platforms like Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF), several top MSOs won’t offer any ITV programming to their subscribers, including Charter Communications Inc. , Bright House Networks , and most Cox Communications Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) systems.

Several pay TV distributors are running interactive mosaic channels during the Winter Olympics, which will allow viewers to see programming from six channels simultaneously on a single grid -- CNBC, MSNBC, Oxygen, USA Network, and two Olympic highlight channels. But the mosaic viewing experience will vary, with each operator using its own flavor of technology to bring it home.

Cox’s San Diego system is its only market that will carry a mosaic channel with six feeds from the Games. That system is also double-mapping all of NBCU’s channels so viewers can more easily navigate Olympics programming. Standard-def NBCU programming will run on channels 81-85, while the high-definition versions will run on channels 774-777, a spokeswoman says.

DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) has a proprietary in-house solution for its mosaic channel, while AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is using the Multiview Mosaic application it rolled out to U-verse TV subscribers last fall. (See U-verse Adds Mosaics, Media Sharing.)

Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) is using OpenTV Corp. (Nasdaq: OPTV)’s set-top software for its mosaic channel, and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) is using technology from ActiveVideo for its mosaic channel.

ActiveVideo is also powering the mosaic channel for Time Warner Cable’s Oceanic system in Hawaii. The Oceanic system -- long a test bed for unique interactive TV products like pizza deliveries on demand -- is the only Time Warner system offering interactive functions to subscribers for the Olympics.

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is using its Video Rich Navigation product to deliver a mosaic channel to its subscribers. (See Comcast Ramps Up 'Video Rich Navigation' .)

While the major MSOs that back Canoe Ventures LLC have been hyping EBIF as the technology that will drive the wide deployment of interactive programming and advertising, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) is the only pay TV provider that will use it to deliver interactive programming during the Olympics. (See Comcast Clicking With EBIF.)

Bigger ITV support by the 2012 Games
But with Comcast, Charter, Cox, Bright House Networks, and other Canoe partners promising to hit the accelerator on EBIF deployments, Mike Aaronson VP of NBC Universal digital distribution, says many more cable systems will offer interactive programming by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

“My expectation is by the time we get to 2012… we’ll have a majority of the cable footprint, where we have zero of it today [with EBIF],” Aaronson says.

NBC isn’t selling any interactive advertising around the Olympics. But EBIF will eventually allow NBC and its affiliates to sell interactive ads to Olympics advertisers, he notes.

“It will be nice when we can have a consistent user experience -- you can promote it more broadly.”

In addition to the mosaic channels, all of the distributors that are offering interactive programming will feature an interactive medal count, allowing subscribers to track medals by country.

Cable and satellite firms that are offering interactive Olympics content will also supply subscribers with text stories, some including still images, from Vancouver. NBC delivers the stories to providers through an RSS feed, and the operators are adding the content to their channels through various ITV products.

New York-based ITV firm Ensequence Inc. developed an application code that Dish and Verizon are using to “ingest the data feeds” supplied by NBC, Aaronson says.

DirecTV, AT&T, and Comcast are handling the integration on their own, with support from NBC, he adds. ActiveVideo is handling the data integration for Cablevision and Time Warner’s Oceanic system.

Although many cable operators aren't getting interactive with their coverage of these Winter Games, 14 MSOs, including Charter and Suddenlink Communications , have teamed up with Synacor Inc. to offer broadband access to more than 300 hours of live and more than 400 hours of on-demand replays. (See Synacor Helps Cable Web Up Olympics.)

— Steve Donohue, Special to Light Reading Cable

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