iTV — This Time, Let’s Get It Right

Here’s a foolproof iTV revenue model: Every time an ad is zapped, one dollar is electronically sucked from the viewer’s account and divvied up between the agency, advertiser, multi-system operator (MSO), network, and content provider.

If that won’t fly, we’re going to have to figure out what will. iTV will be a pervasive reality in a couple of years. If the two recent sold-out New York conferences on the subject are any indication, mating dances are well underway between the players eager to get a piece of the next big marketing technology.

And their credibility is at stake. iTV is not democratic. Content will not be concocted on a home computer like a Web site can be. It’s a job for professionals. Let’s hope it looks professional.

A lot of issues need immediate and serious contemplation by these pros. Hopefully, lessons have been learned from what Web marketing is doing right, and doing wrong, that will make iTV a viable marketing medium, while helping to avoid serious, costly, and embarrassing derailments.

Half Empty or Half Full?

If the current players don’t stop over-promising, iTV could be over before it even starts. Companies such as Wink and NBC are rhapsodizing loudly and publicly about enhanced 30-second spot response rates of 65 percent (a Disney Store coupon) to a stratospheric 95 percent (a Clorox giveaway). Well, that’s because this is new stuff, guys. It’s nifty. People are curious… for now. Banner ads once had 20 percent click-throughs, remember? Let’s manage expectations this time around.

Sales teams, I’ve seen your PowerPoints. You’ve cut the word “Internet” and pasted “iTV” in to your sales presentations. The value prepositions are identical to those in Web ad sales: customization, personalization, laser-sharp targeting. The current state of Internet advertising notwithstanding, how are you going to deliver on these promises on TV? Just because they have screens, doesn’t mean they’re computers.

Web surfing, like reading, is a solitary pursuit; but watching the tube is not necessarily a solitary act. How will ads be targeted to a specific viewer or demographic in a room full of people — especially when you don’t even know who has dibs on the remote? How can you know who’s watching even in one-person households? Both my cleaning lady and my boyfriend have keys. She’s watching Spanish-language programming; he’s watching sports. Will I come home to “personalized” ads for Goya foods and Bud Light?

The value in iTV family values lies in the all-important remote — already an object of considerable contention. Who decides when, where, and what to click on? How is this going to be measured? Will iTV’s marketing be entirely content-centric, based on niche viewing, or will demographics govern the sell?

When someone — whoever — does click through, who owns that data? The MSOs? The advertiser? The network? Is it shared? What about privacy? Things could get nasty until these sticky issues are resolved.

An Oxymoron?

The questions above are predicated on the assumption that TV viewers want to interact. But do they? If so, what do they want to interact with? Interactivity may be the inherent fallacy of the medium. People like to be passively entertained, especially after a day spent clicking on screens at the office. Finally, if “interactive TV” isn’t an oxymoron, is the medium a branding or sales tool?

I’m betting on the latter. Sure, the U.K. saw a spike in pizza delivery conversions via iTV. But pizza is one of the few products that enhances a couch-potato experience. What else will sell on iTV? There aren’t a lot of other goods or services (legal ones, at least) that fit the couch-potato lifestyle.

We know iTV content is going to contain marketing messages (because viewers are going to be able to zap ad spots like shooting fish in a barrel). Currently, agencies create ads, not content. Producers create content, not ads. How will marketing messages get into programming? At present, an unholy alliance of biz-dev and ad-sales executives are assuming both production and agency responsibilities. Creatives — watch your back!

No one has the slightest idea what kind of content will be created for iTV, particularly in entertainment programming.

One approach is wrapping trivia quizzes around existing cult shows (e.g., “Star Trek”), which companies such as Spiderdance do with online games synched to on-air broadcasts. Certainly the costs are low, as the programming’s straight from the vault. Spiderdance boasts that one project averaged 49 minutes of online gaming per viewer versus 17 minutes spent watching the TV broadcast. How slippery is this slope? Stephen Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” didn’t fare as well at the box office as the game to promote the film did online. So what’s the content, and what’s the marketing? Which is pushing the other — and how will advertisers stay one step ahead?

Obviously, data-centric programming — news, weather, game shows, and sports — will be much easier to iTV-ize than entertainment. Enhanced value can be added with fewer distractions. Nevertheless, design and copyrighting challenges loom large. Fonts must be big enough to read across the living room; text must be legible but short enough not to obliterate images. Colors shift when translated from computer to TV screens. To add interactivity to television is to introduce a learning curve to an audience whose consumption habits have been about as interactive as an IV feed. Information architects, over to you.

Having spent many years in television marketing before crossing over, I think these issues are mesmerizing. What about our readers? Are you thinking about it? Preparing for it? Working on it already? Want more of it? Couldn’t care less? Tell me.

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