The skys the limit

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Mixed Signals'ITV DataFlo system is used to deliver interactive versions of Columbia TriStar's game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune to WebTV users. Other clients include NBC, HGTV and Game Show Network.

How many people are using the interactive "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" features?

I know exactly, but I'm not allowed to disclose it. But what I can say is for our figures of the WebTV installed base, which is about 600,000, almost 60% of the installed base has registered to play, and over 45% to 50% play more than twice a week. So it's pretty significant. A lot of people watch those shows. It's simple, it's fun.

Have you tried to experiment with any digital TV broadcast signals?

We have, actually. We're working with an electronics manufacturer that's making a DTV receiver that's sort of an ancillary consumer electronics device. Really, what that's going to come down to for everybody is, with that type of broadcast signal, they're going to create a set of rules. It's going to be just like captioning and multicast IP, etc. Okay, we're going to use this specification for encoding data.

That specification may encompass ZIP code addressability or any one of a number of different things. It's easy for us, because we know how to grab or address the signal based on a standard or a protocol that somebody developed. As long as there's a receiver that's programmed when it receives the signal to look at a specific part of it and decode and display what's there, our job is easy. The real tricky part is on the side of those receiver manufacturers; that's the tough bit.

Do you think the DASE standard for DTV data is going to be the equivalent of ATVEF for NTSC?

First of all, ATVEF has become such a misnomer in the industry. ATVEF was a great idea, but it's just about dead at this point, because it just wasn't developed properly. It's a specification that references other specifications. For instance, we don't use ATVEF for Wheel and Jeopardy; we use EIA-746, which is referenced in ATVEF.

DASE, I think, has a lot more momentum behind it. As a specification, it's better put together, it's much more thought out. As for whether it gets adopted or not, unfortunately, it all comes down to politics in one form or another. But I think it's pretty sound.

What kind of feedback were you getting from broadcasters at NAB, and how do they see using your technology? How far evolved is their vision of interactivity compared with the people in the cable space?

The way we drive the conversation at this point, is a broadcaster will come to us. They'll sit down, and usually they'll drag an engineer with them. We go, "Here's the simple part. You have a video signal. Our equipment can grab any video signal, incorporate data and shoot it back out." That's easy. The difficult thing-and the feedback we get really has little to do with what we do as a company right now-primarily involves what's going to happen as far as fulfilling the technology to the consumer.

Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy are good, well-rounded applications. But what drives television is advertising. And with all of the capability that's being talked about with interactive advertising, when a consumer clicks on something, the technology is there, and we're getting there, to have this instant-response capability.

The problem is fulfilling on that promise to the consumer. If the consumer says they'd like a free sample of Special K, who's going to lick the stamp, slap it on that box and send it to the consumer? A letter-size envelope in the United States costs 33 cents to send, and most people in the interactive TV business are saying they want a minimum 50 cents per transaction. Well, if it costs 33 cents to just send a letter to somebody, and the most valuable piece of data an advertiser can get is someone's name, address and telephone number, where's the money to make all this work going to come from? That's the question people are asking.

When these guys sit down at our table, they say, "We understand that, technically, we can produce interactive TV. How does this make sense from a business point of view?"

What's your next big area?

We're doing sports, we're doing game shows. I think sports is probably the next big thing.


At DirecTV The Sky's the Limit

He invented Fox Sports. Revived Fox Television. And now he's in charge of beefing up Rupert's satellite unit. Cable folks have a tech advantage, but this guy makes them nervous