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InTV's Screen Test : Interactive Cable Service Puts Viewer in Command, but Analysts Call Offering Relatively Low-Tech


It's been six weeks since Javier Cedillo and his family signed on as human guinea pigs in a test of a new interactive TV system with Ventura County Cablevision.

Equipped with a special remote control and a new cable TV box, the Cedillo children, Alexis, 12, and Nicholas, 8, spend at least two hours a day playing video games on what's known as InTV. And when the basketball playoffs were on a few weeks ago, Cedillo admits he got hooked on a feature allowing him to zero in on a star player at the touch of a button.

"We like it [InTV] and we use it," said Cedillo, who lives in Westlake Village.

The Bukowskis of Agoura Hills are also enthusiastic, although it's not the interactive sports coverage that turns them on.

"The whole family has gotten interested in the blackjack and the roulette," said Susan Bukowski, mother of Katie, 10, and Janis, 8. Her husband, James, now regularly plays chess with the TV screen, sometimes fitting in moves to avoid commercials while channel-surfing.

InTV may not signal the arrival of a new route along the much-vaunted information superhighway in Southern California, but it's a tiny step in that direction.

"This will change the way consumers watch TV," said Richard Yelen, director of marketing for Ventura County Cablevision. "The technology allows consumers to learn as they go."

The company is two months into a market test of the interactive system in Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Westlake Village. If viewers respond, Ventura County Cablevision will market InTV as a premium programming service like HBO--probably charging $8 to $12 on top of the typical $30 cable bill--by March 1996.

Eventually, ACTV, the New York-based company that owns InTV, hopes to market the service throughout Southern California.

That, however, could prove difficult. InTV's technology is not as interactive as, say, a program that could run on a personal computer. And viewers can't communicate directly with advertisers, although they can choose which commercials to view.

And the company has been struggling.

ACTV, 24% owned by the Washington Post Co., lost $1.952 million on revenues of $341,634 for the first quarter ended March 31, 1995. In 1994, it lost $4.5 million on revenues of $938,400.

The InTV test is the first U. S. trial of a technology that's been in use in Canada for five years. Since 1990, the technology has been available to cable TV subscribers in Montreal and other parts of Quebec. About 26% of the 1 million customers of Canadian cable operator Le Groupe Videotron pay $8.95 (Canadian) to receive it.

No one knows if consumers truly want these interactive services, said Bob Diddlebock, editor of Cable World, a Denver-based national trade magazine. If people do want it, he said, there's no telling what they'll be willing to pay. "The industry is still at the point where it's throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks," said Diddlebock.

During prime time, InTV features Prime Sports Network, which carries the Angels, Lakers, Mighty Ducks and Kings in the Los Angeles area. InTV allows sports fans to pick from a variety of camera angles on the field, call up instant replays, statistics, player profiles, trivia and so on, all at the push of a button.

There's more coming. Brent Imai, InTV's vice president and project manager, said the service hopes soon to deliver a special feed of a local newscast. With the push of a remote control button, viewers will be able to choose the order of news reports, or call up more in-depth coverage. For example, viewers might be able to call up historical background on people or places in the news.

InTV will also give viewers a modicum of control over the commercials they view. When a commercial break is coming, viewers receive cues on the screen. If the advertiser is a car maker, for example, would they prefer to see a message about a minivan, or a sports car? Push a button, and the selected spot airs.

However, a viewer can't order a brochure or hook up with a car dealer by selecting the commercial since it's not currently equipped for true two-way communication.

ACTV Entertainment President David Reese defended the service's simple nature.

"We don't want people to think about technology," said Reese. "This is programming designed to take an existing service and make it better."

Unlike other interactive TV trials taking place around the country, InTV doesn't require a cable operator to make massive investments in powerful fiber optics or two-way digital technology to accommodate it.

That, said Imai, allows the company to get in on the ground floor, offering an interactive service years before more advanced technologies can get off the ground.

"We prefer to get the jump on it and do it now," Imai said.

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