Tuning in the U.S. iTV Market

Back when I was a TV marketing executive, interactive TV was just beginning to peek over the horizon. No one really knew what it was or what it would eventually look like. The shorthand phrase universally adopted to indicate the perceived power of iTV’s advertising and programming abilities was “Jennifer Aniston’s sweater.”

What, you don’t remember Jennifer Aniston’s sweater? The premise was that you’d be watching an episode of “Friends” (back when it was still being produced) and admire something Aniston was wearing. Barely hesitating, you’d pick up the remote and click, and even as you were enjoying the rest of the episode, that infamous sweater would be winging its way toward you through time and space.

Never happened. That sweater lies somewhere in virtual mothballs. But iTV advertising is alive and growing. So what, I’ve been wondering, is the current state of iTV?

iTV Boot Camp

Thanks to an introduction by a mutual friend, I was fortunate enough to pose that question to the right person, EVP and director of CaratDigital Mitch Oscar. Oscar also runs a consultancy, HocusFocus, whose primary focus is interactive TV.

And if that weren’t enough, Oscar wrote the book on iTV — literally. He was kind enough to give me a copy of “Trials & Defibrillations: Interactive Television in the U.S.

Oscar’s tome is both goldmine and godsend for anyone with a need to get up to speed on the state of iTV. The book starts at the beginning, with an explanation of what iTV is — and there are quite a few permutations, including addressable television advertising, VOD (define), the interactive program guide, and the digital video recorder.

The book also thoroughly outlines the players in each of these categories, the geographic areas in which they operate, their advertising propositions, and (perhaps best of all) numerous case studies in all these very diverse areas.

Why the resurgence of interest in iTV now? Accountability is a major factor. Recently, at South by Southwest, Mark Cuban argued the data delivered by the cable players and others operating in iTV are more accountable — and reliable — than online user data.

One manifestation of this the “quadruple bypass,” that is the cable system operators using (or beginning to use) addressable technologies to not only deliver cable programming but also VOD, broadband, telephony, and wireless. Meanwhile, major telcos such as Verizon and AT&T are reserving part of their broadband spectrum for video offerings, which, as Oscar points out, could present a challenge to locally dominant cable operators.

Oscar’s criticism of the players in this growing and potentially highly lucrative field is their reluctance to share results of trials and case studies. He calls them “guilty of nondisclosure,” the effect of which is hindering iTV’s growth in the advertising community. “If more information was shared,” he argues, “in a collaborative environment…all players would benefit.”

In addition to a succinct definition of the aforementioned four major iTV platforms, the book traces the history of addressable television advertising and the major players in the industry (including corporate genealogy, where applicable) and lists and defines the 10 primary iTV advertising capabilities: psychographic/demographic targeting, geographic targeting, dynamic ad insertion, frequency capping, audio switching, creative targeting, retailer/dealer steering, requests for information, time-sensitive deployment, and commercial refreshing.

“We think that with the evolution and deployment of digital technology, the TV commercial value proposition is going to evolve from a necessary evil — the foundation of free TV, though, that becomes more debatable in the on-demand realm — and blossom into a gateway or portal to engage TV viewers.”

To this end, highly detailed case studies are very critically discussed for all the currently available iTV forms and formats. Advertisers who have consented to open the kimono on their iTV deployments include brands as diverse as National Geographic, Philips, Re/Max, Chase, and Papa John’s.

It’s worthwhile noting that Oscar’s boss at Carat, David Verklin, just stepped down from his CEO post and is said to be taking up the reins (oar?) at Project Canoe, the $140 million start-up backed by a consortium of the major cable operators: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Cox, Charter, and Bright House. The goal is to provide advertisers with common technology standards and an approach to buying that would help them easily glide into iTV waters.

If that isn’t a hint that now just might be the time to pick up Oscar’s book for a crash course on the next important advertising channel, I don’t know what is.

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