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SPECIAL REPORT: DIGITAL TELEVISION

Advertisers Lukewarm to HDTV

November 16, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Advertisers should be salivating over the emergence of digital television--and the anticipated explosion of new channels. After all, say industry analysts, broadcasters will need commercials to pay for this wave of new programming.

And once an HDTV ad--with its lush digital sound, cinema-quality images and picture-box format allowing for more panoramic views--is shot, it can be reedited to run on a traditional analog broadcast.

But so far, most advertisers have adopted a cool attitude toward the format, as well as several efforts to weave electronic commerce into it. The reason, simply enough, is that too few people own a digital TV set to make such a switch worthwhile.

Only Procter & Gamble has emerged as a trailblazer among advertisers experimenting with the new format. Earlier this year, the Cincinnati-based firm aired a series of high-definition ads in a trial broadcast and has agreed to another that its advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, has in production.

"There will be more time slots, but advertisers realize there won't be more eyeballs looking at these advertisements," said David Belson, who teaches a course on high-definition TV at UCLA.

The latest heady ideal is to blur the line between TV programming and e-commerce. Such proposals feed into the cable and computer industries' joint push for adoption of digital set-top boxes, which are being hailed as the solution to the long-promised dream of interactive TV, through which consumers can access a feast of services using two-way cable communication.

Capitalizing on the emergence of broad-band access to television, several companies are trying to market goods by following the film industry's model of product placement. In the HDTV scenario, viewers see an object, which they can then buy with a click of the remote control. The items go into the consumer's "shopping cart" and are "checked out" after the show, so viewers are not bombarded with icons or menus during the program.

Intertainer, a Santa Monica-based broad-band content firm, is developing a system with which viewers can point, click and order products from their favorite TV shows.

MIT's Media Lab has also created a working demo of this entertainment hybrid, crossing a TV soap opera with a home shopping program. Working with sponsor J.C. Penney, scientists at MIT produced a 15-minute digital program called "HyperSoap." The show uses clothing and furnishings taken from the department store's catalog.

Almost everything on the screen is for sale, from the actress' earrings to knickknacks on her desk. Viewers can use a special remote control to click on an item, which marks the product and pops up an order form at the end of the show.

"This is going to happen. It's just a matter of time," said V. Michael Bove Jr., head of the Media Lab's object-based media group. "[TV] producers can now sell space on their set to advertisers, which is creating an entirely new revenue opportunity."

Such lofty visions won't be available any time soon, insist industry analysts. After all, interactive television has been touted as the "next big thing" for nearly 20 years but always proved too costly and too complicated to roll out on a big scale.

"Right now, it's a non-issue," said Vicki Lins, director of marketing for AdLink, a Los Angeles venture that handles ad distribution among regional cable systems. "Three years from now, who knows?"

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Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter can be reached via e-mail at p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com.

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