In high school, Rick Mandler was always attracted to computers and new technology. "I was one of the geeks hanging out in the computer room," he jokes. "I've always kept abreast of the latest technology."
Now that's his job. As vice president of the Walt Disney Internet Group (WDIG), he's responsible for all business development, production, technical and integrated sales for enhanced-TV projects produced for Disney-owned broadcast and cable-network programming.
He entered broadcasting through the legal department, joining Capital Cities/ABC Inc. in 1992 as a general attorney for ABC News. After a stint as director of business affairs for ABC News, he moved on to ABC Radio Networks, where he had operational and strategic responsibility for the ABC Radio division's Internet efforts.
Seeing some of the early demo versions of Yahoo Broadcasting (then called AudioNet), which was streaming audio of college basketball games, he recognized the potential and showed them to his team. "I said to them, 'Look at what these guys are doing in your space.'"
With no existing model to emulate, Mandler and Bernie Gershon, who now runs ABCNews.com, put together a business plan for an Internet effort. They pitched their strategy to Bob Callahan, then president of ABC Radio, and were given a green light.
"The business model for us, back then, assumed that we would be part of the ABC Radio network," Mandler says. "We tried to offer service to radio stations in exchange for advertising time, like radio networks now do. We tried to aggregate the Web presence of those radio stations into a national Internet network. It worked reasonably well for the ABC O&Os, but we never really gained traction with the independents. I'm most proud of the fact that we got those ABC stations out ahead of the pack [on the Web], and they continue to be."
Mandler followed Callahan to ABC television. As vice president of new media for the ABC Broadcast Group, he was responsible for developing and managing the Internet efforts of ABC-owned television and radio stations. Then Disney formed WDIG.
WDIG and ABC's enhanced-TV programming is delivered via an Internet-connected computer and is controlled by a user watching the show simultaneously on television. For Mandler, enhanced TV is neither a television experience nor an Internet computer experience, but truly both at the same time.
"For us right now, enhanced TV means companion programming to television," he explains. "We view what we're doing as building programming that expands the TV-viewing experience. Currently, we deliver it over the Internet to a PC, but, in the not-so-distant future, we're going to be delivering it over other networks to your television."
So, how long will it be before consumers begin using enhanced TV? "That's a good question. What we do now has some exposure and presence. When people watch Monday Night Football or Millionaire and they see the ETV logo on the TV screen, they're not completely in the dark about what that means. But, at the same time, we're asking them to jump through a bunch of hoops to able to get the enhancements: They have to have a PC and a TV in the same room, they have to boot it up, they have to log on, etc.
"The first step is that it has to be easier," he continues, "which means single-screen applications. For that to happen, there has got to be significant penetration of either high-function [interactive] set-top boxes or the companion boxes, like WebTV and AOLTV. Anybody who says that it's going to happen in the next six months is being unrealistic.
"Being aggressive, I'd say it will take 18 months to two years. Being realistic, I'd probably say it's going to take more than two years before everyone knows what ETV is and wants to do it and a significant number of people have the ability to do it."