Cable ITV Braces for 'Template Tension'

DENVER -- The use of unified "templates" will help cable accelerate the deployment of interactive TV (ITV) applications, cable experts say. But one worry developers have is how those templates may limit their ability to customize their applications.

That topic, dubbed "template tension" by moderator and analyst Leslie Ellis, was debated here Wednesday at The Cable Center in a conference put on by the CTAM of the Rocky Mountains.

The tension is among app developers, networks, and advertisers, who want flexibility and cable operators who want a templated way of speeding up app deployments and keeping costs low.

Canoe Ventures LLC -- an advanced ad joint venture backed by Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC), Cox Communications Inc. , Charter Communications Inc. , and Bright House Networks -- is using a template system for the initial deployment of its "Request for More Information" (RFI) product, which uses the CableLabs -specified Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format (EBIF) platform so it can run on virtually all classes of digital cable boxes. (See Canoe Preps ITV Ad 'Template' .)

The Comcast Media Center (CMC) is taking a similar path with "HITS Axis," a centrally managed ITV system that's being pitched to smaller MSOs and has a handful of announced beta customers. (See Four More Join 'HITS AxIS'.)

The template approach won't start and stop with EBIF. It will also be used as MSOs continue to develop apps, including "unbound" social-networking apps that aren't synched up with the programming, for the beefier tru2way platform.

"I think it's a huge issue," Canoe CTO Arthur Orduna said of the template approach. "But we had to start with templates," he added, noting that there had to be less emphasis on the creative end of those ads and more placed on the creation of a uniform experience and data-gathering methods that would work across disparate MSO systems. "It's the baby step so we can start to run."

Canoe is using the template system for its initial RFI deployments with multiple Comcast and Time Warner Cable markets, working with a handful of cable networks, including some owned by Comcast, NBC Universal , Rainbow Media Holdings LLC, and Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK). (See Canoe Boots Up Interactive Ad Campaign .)

Orduna suggested that Canoe could eventually offer networks more brand flexibility through the use of more programmer-specific templates.

That may be good news for programmers such as Starz Entertainment LLC , which has developed an EBIF app called "Watch Now" that lets viewers "telescope" to an on-demand file of a program that's running on the linear channel. Starz is also working on a voting/rating app that can pop up as the credits roll, as well as an unbound app that would pop up when non-subscribers tune to a Starz channel. Instead of giving subs a generic message that they need to have a subscription, they'd instead see a flashier, Starz-branded slate that provides a call to action on how to order services.

"This [ITV] is not a technology play; this is a marketing play," says Starz senior director of Internet and interactive TV Rebecca Rusk Lim.

For now, Canoe and its MSO partners are focused on building out footprint that can utilize the RFI product and then convince advertisers to put money into it. At least 25 million boxes should be equipped with EBIF "user agents" by the end of the year.

Orduna hopes that all capable digital cable boxes will have EBIF user agents in them within five years, and would eventually like to see as many as 30 percent of prime-time avails enabled with the interactive technology, a prediction that implies that EBiF will expand into national broadcast TV feeds.

Canoe is also working on ad-supported polling and trivia applications that use EBIF. Orduna said the goal is to launch those products in 2011. Here's a screenshot of what was demoed here at the event:

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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