Interactive TV starting to make inroads

Changing people's media habits can be almost as difficult as persuading them to switch religious faiths. But after a summer of field tests and trials, the purveyors of interactive television in Canada say they're winning converts....

Changing people’s media habits can be almost as difficult as persuading them to switch religious faiths. But after a summer of field tests and trials, the purveyors of interactive television in Canada say they’re winning converts.

‘When we first started to roll out the service, we were expecting our target market to be the tech-positive people and early adopters,’ says Stephen West, team leader for product management in the entertainment services group of Aliant Telecom. ‘[But] we’ve seen, particularly in the last couple of months, that the demographic is changing. We’re getting a lot of people now who see this as a great opportunity for them to get the Internet in their home without being scared away by a PC.’

Both Saint John, N.B.-based NBTel (a division of Aliant) and Toronto-based Rogers Communications have recently wrapped up testing of interactive TV products. The next step will be to make these offerings – which allow users to surf the Web via their TVs – more widely available.

Shaw Communications of Calgary also announced plans earlier this year to offer customers a similar product.

Interactive TV products – most notably WebTV – have been tested in Canada a number of times in recent years. But for the most part, they have failed to attract substantial numbers of subscribers.

Michael Lee, vice-president and general manager of interactive services at Rogers, says undeveloped technology and a lack of rich content posed major obstacles in the past. But that’s changing now.

The Rogers Interactive TV service is currently being made available to the company’s cable customers in the Toronto area.

The Internet-over-cable service is aimed at consumers who aren’t currently online, but are looking for an easy and inexpensive way to get there. It lets users access the Internet and send e-mail via their televisions, using a remote control or wireless keyboard. There’s also an interactive TV programming guide.

Once Rogers has gathered feedback about how people are using the product, there will be a more formal launch – probably before the end of the year, Lee says.

As for NBTel, its VibeVision service is one of the first interactive TV products to be distributed over telephone lines.

VibeVision offers both digital television (more 100 channels in all), as well as interactive features such as Web browsing, e-mail and access to directory listings.

Aliant’s Stephen West says the service currently has approximately 1,500 subscribers in the Saint John and Moncton, N.B. areas and is about to be rolled out in the Halifax market, with expansion into the rest of Atlantic Canada due sometime next year.

Once interactive TV has a critical mass of users, West says, the opportunities for marketers are considerable.

‘[What's] amazing…is the level of customer understanding you can get. With every click of the remote, we know what movies are ordered, what channel packages a customer has, what channels are watched and what time they’re watched.’

Lee, for his part, predicts that the next year will witness a great deal of experimentation with interactive TV advertising models. (The possibilities range from traditional banner ads to streaming of interactive television spots.)

A couple of partner companies have already signed on to use Rogers Interactive TV as a marketing and distribution medium, although Lee declines to reveal their names or business categories.