AOL TV-AOL's answer to Microsoft's WebTV-made its debut at NCTA at the Liberate booth. AOL plans to introduce the service this summer.
"This is a live system that is now in a lot of beta testers' homes, and we're trying to get it ready for launch," said Carlos Silva, vice president, product studio AOL devices. New members will be able to get the service for $21.95 a month while existing AOL customers will be able to get the service with a slight uptick in their monthly charge, he said.
Users will hook up a Philips set-top box to their TV through the cable set-top box so that AOL TV can interact with the video programming. A list of functions down the left side of the screen includes instant messaging, chat, and e-mail functions.
"AOL TV is all about watching television and creating new e-commerce opportunities," said Silva. "Things like Shop AOL will be available online, and customers will be able to buy products through their television sets."
Liberate developed much of the software supporting the service. "We've used their middleware hooked up with our AOL technologies to communicate with the existing rooms, chat rooms, buddy lists, and displaying them on the TV," Silva explained.
Liberate CEO and President Mitchell Kertzman said some are still skeptical about interactivity because attractively packaged content like that of AOL TV hasn't had a chance to attract an audience yet. "It's taken a while for the technologies and infrastructure to be more mature, and it's also required cable companies to build relationships with companies like ours, Cisco and others."
Kertzman said that, because interactive technology is an in-your-face experience, cable companies have been careful in its rollout. "You can understand that cable companies would be cautious about not doing something that makes the viewing experience worse or risks revenue streams or drives viewers to competitors.
"Given that, the evaluation, testing and experimentation with business models and things like that are understandable and appropriate."
Most important to Liberate is that AOL understands packaging of Internet content. "What our customers want is to make compelling content available to their customers," he said.
AOL TV's screen is different from its graphics-intensive online service, and, Silva said, that's no accident. "We're doing more than just translating Web site to TV sets. We're trying to create a whole new service that leverages the great things that AOL offers."
What becomes of AOL TV remains to be seen, but, as broadcasters and cable systems begin to wrestle with delivering Internet and interactive content over the television, Kertzman believes, there are some definite dos and don'ts.
"I think consumers are going to want interactivity and enhanced programming, but it's important that it isn't forced on them. It has to be the viewer's choice. The relationship of the TV viewer with the television program is a very special intimate one. And you fool around with that at your peril."
Kertzman said he has heard people complain about the reminders on the Discovery Channel to get more information at the Web site. The frustration is that the viewer doesn't have the means to turn that off.
"If that prompt were sent via an interactive platform, the viewer would have the opportunity to turn that off," he explained.