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Framework Adopted for 'Enhanced TV'

Technology: Entertainment, computer firms agree on specifications that will make content widely compatible.

July 29, 1998|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clearing a significant obstacle to the blending of television programming with Internet-style functionality, giant companies from the entertainment and computer industries agreed Tuesday to the first common framework for creating such hybrid content.

The specifications, proposed by such heavyweights as Intel Corp., Walt Disney Co. and Microsoft Corp., are expected to simplify the task of creating everything from game shows that let viewers play along to TV commercials that come with buttons for ordering products.

The agreement bridges technological gaps between competing services and platforms and could hasten the arrival of the "enhanced television" age, analysts say.

"This is a turning point," said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "Now we're really at the threshold of having a lot of TV networks and producers begin to build this sort of interactive programming."

Of course, the entertainment industry has been pursuing its dream of interactive services for decades with little success. And there are questions about how interested consumers really are in having their TV sets turned into digital vending machines.

But Tuesday's announcement comes at a time when a number of developments--ranging from the surging popularity of the Internet to the pending introduction of new set-top boxes by the cable industry--are paving the way for interactive television's long-delayed arrival.

With that in mind, Forrester expects the number of consumers capable of receiving enhanced TV programming to soar to 1.3 million by the end of next year, up from a few hundred thousand now.

The agreement aims to solve what was becoming a nettlesome problem for companies in Hollywood and elsewhere developing shows, commercials and other content for enhanced television.

For now, these developers typically have to write multiple versions of their content for a growing list of services and platforms that are often incompatible.

NBC, for instance, broadcasts football games over the Internet using Intercast technology developed by Intel. The cyber-broadcasts combine TV-style viewing with Web-based extras including player stats.

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But C.J. Fredricksen, an Intel marketing manager, said NBC's broadcasts have to be modified for other services, such as WebTV, the Microsoft-owned service that allows consumers to access the Internet through their TV sets.

The specifications aim to fix that problem by enabling developers to create one version of their content capable of running on all these competing platforms, regardless of whether it is transmitted via the airwaves, by satellite or over a cable network.

Fredricksen said content, devices and services that take advantage of the new specifications could be on the market as soon as early 1999.

The specifications were drafted by a group called the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum. The cross-industry group said it plans to solicit comments from other companies and submit the final draft to technological standards-setting bodies.

Backers of the agreement include a number of fierce rivals. DirecTV, for instance, is a satellite service that competes with cable TV operators. But CableLabs, the research arm of the cable industry, was also on board. Similarly, WebTV endorsed the specifications alongside rival Network Communications Inc., a unit of Oracle Corp.

Other backers include CNN News Group, Discovery Communications Inc., the Public Broadcasting Service, Sony Corp., Tribune Co. and Warner Bros. Inc.

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