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Interactive TV Gets Its Own Emmy

April 16, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on Monday announced a new Emmy for interactive TV programming, signaling that the long-hyped but little-seen marriage of technology and TV has finally won a foothold in the industry.

Chances are good, however, that the winning enhancements won't have been seen by most TV viewers. That's because relatively few sets, cable converter boxes or satellite receivers in the U.S. are delivering that kind of interactivity today.

With that in mind, the academy decided not to reserve an Emmy statuette for interactive programmers. Instead, the winners--if there are any--will receive an Emmy plaque.

The award will recognize original interactive enhancements that are "integrally related" to a program. For example, it might be an overlay on the TV screen that offers background information on the characters, or a Web site that offers supplemental text, graphics and video.

John Leverence, the academy's vice president of awards, said interactive TV is still a work in progress. The award, he said, should be viewed as "a first step in the direction of full Emmy recognition, even as the technology is still in its infancy, still unfulfilled in terms of its promise."

Advocates of the new Emmy, which will be awarded Aug. 21 during the engineering awards presentation, said they wanted not only to recognize the creative work being done in interactive TV but also to encourage more of it.

"The mission of the television academy [includes] recognizing leadership in the advancement of television arts and sciences," said Brian Seth Hurst, a consultant active in the campaign for the award. "The point is to continue to forward the medium."

Interactive TV has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, when a CBS show, "Winky Dink and You," invited kids to help solve a cartoon character's problems by drawing on their TV screens. It has come and gone several times since then, with new technologies being abandoned in the face of high costs and low interest.

Over the last few years, cable and satellite operators have installed millions of set-top boxes capable of delivering interactive TV--if they have the right software.

The TV industry has yet to settle on which software to use, however, chopping the potential audience into smaller pieces.

Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, said the leading interactive TV services today are interactive ads, news and weather updates, video on demand and personal video recording, not program-related enhancements.

Although public TV stations and education-oriented cable networks have been particularly active experimenters, no one has found a business model yet to support the kind of interactivity the academy wants to recognize.

Consumers "are interested in that extra information. They've taken advantage of it, but from the broadcasters' side, how do we make a dime off of this?" said analyst Mike Paxton of Cahners In-Stat MDR, a technology research firm.

Nevertheless, Shawn Hardin, a governor of the academy's Interactive Media Peer Group, said interactive programs are "being distributed pretty much by every major broadcaster."

For example, CBS offers a stylish version of "CSI" with interactive explanations of the high-tech forensic tools used on the show, and ABC's Web site for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" lets viewers play along with the on-air contestants.

"Every major outlet that we can look at has one- or two-screen experiences that qualify for this award and in some cases are extremely compelling," Hardin said.

A one-screen program lets viewers display the interactive features on their TV sets, typically by shrinking the video to make room for extra text and graphics. A two-screen program delivers the interactive features through the Web, so viewers can display them on computers near their TVs.

Analysts estimate that 30 million to 40 million people watch TV and surf the Web simultaneously, and close to 10 million homes have satellite and cable TV set-top boxes that can deliver basic interactive programming.

As many as 1 million have more advanced set-tops with two-way connections to the Internet, enabling more sophisticated interactivity.

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