Fox Reality Goes Interactive

Interactive TV test around Fox's American Idol proves popular with digital viewers in Hawaii
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In the run-up to last week's crowning of Kris Allen as the 2009 American Idol, Fox Reality Channel held a sweepstakes to choose a lucky viewer to attend the show's finale--one part of a successful interactive TV initiative the network tested in Hawaii.

Fox Reality's iTV channel was launched by the network in March for Oceanic Time Warner digital cable subscribers. It has since yielded some significant results that have executives thinking about rolling out similar iTV initiatives in other markets.

Oceanic Time Warner dedicated the channel next to Fox Reality on its digital tier to the test. Then iTV ran on-demand programming showcases of network programs, including clips of the popular American Idol Extra, a reality TV trivia game and a joint Hawaiian Airlines-Idol sweepstakes that sent one winner to the finale show. Video clips featuring local Idol sweepstakes entrants and fans ran as part of a daily lineup of five- to 10-minute on-demand clips with ad insertions in between.

"It's a lovely little closed system to play with, so it was great for us," says Fox Reality Channel President David Lyle of the Hawaiian market. "Emerging networks like ourselves need to try new and different things." A spokesperson said no timetable has yet been created for any additional test.

An Open iTV Test

Programmers have experimented with interactive TV tests in micro-markets, but the Fox Reality venture marks the first time that a regular cable channel has established an open system in which the public can play.

More than 10% of Oceanic Time Warner's 200,000 digital subscribers took part in the interactive TV channel initiative each week. "It's not a huge number, but anytime you get a 10% opt-in, we feel very good about it," Lyle says. He is also pleased with the return rate among users who do come to the channel: 60% of previous viewers return to the site on a weekly basis. Fox Reality also saw a 50% uptick in viewership on the linear channel.

The Hawaiian Airlines-sponsored American Idol sweepstakes proved to be a popular driver of traffic to the channel. Viewers accessed the sweepstakes by navigating down the interactive channel page and selecting the Hawaiian Airlines logo. After running through a rules and guidelines page, fans simply hit a button on their remote and were automatically entered, their data having already been culled from a digital set-top box.

Lyle sees interactive TV platforms as a benefit to advertisers, who he says can have "absolute digital accountability" by sponsoring a separate channel that can be measured through Nielsen or TNS. It also benefits carriers by giving a new take on VOD programming. "The motivation for the carriers and ourselves is to provide for advertisers a dynamic and measurable embedded form of commercial experience," Lyle says.

As Lyle and Fox Reality Channel improve upon their interactive outlet, he is excited about the prospect of moving the initiative to larger markets. "At conferences like NCTA, it's just a matter of talking to carriers who wish to expand their viewer involvement and want to take part," he says.

Much of the program's success came from the support of Time Warner, according to Lyle. The carrier pushed viewers to the interactive channel through cross-channel promotions, running hundreds of spots over the channel's first months on-air. "To me, the interesting development will be working with the carriers and advertisers to see where we take [iTV]," Lyle says. "I think this really was the first step."

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