MLB, YES Network embrace iTV services

By Ken Kerschbaumer

Interactive television applications have been bouncing around the industry for more than a decade, promising to transform the TV viewing experience from a passive one to an active one. And while early visions included ordering pizza through the tube (or, increasingly, the panel) it now looks like sports will be the first real driver of interactivity that moves beyond ordering VOD services. A Fantasy Baseball tracker from Time Warner Cable and a new iTV service to be launched by DirecTV and the YES Network next week are just the latest examples.

We re very strong believers that iTV in sports will be successful if it enhances the viewing experience, says Barry Carpe, VP and GM of iTV service provider BIAP Systems.
Carpe should know. His company is working closely with Time Warner Cable on a Fantasy Baseball Tracker application that has been launched in Green Bay, Wis. (where a similar Fantasy Football Tracker was trialed last fall) and also in Austin, TX, Columbia, S.C. and San Antonio, TX.

The way we create an iTV application, not trying to replicate a Web based experience on TV, not an interruption to viewing experience, with fantasy sports category, some of most avid users and consumers of spots

The application, offered free of charge, allows fantasy baseball enthusiasts to use their remote to input and track their personal team roster, and to receive continually updated statistics just for their fantasy team while they are watching regular television. Viewers have the option of accessing this information as a scrolling ticker, or in more detail as a 3/4-screen or full-screen display.

“The Green Bay Fantasy Football test proved this type of feature provides value to digital cable customers, says Joan Gillman, Time Warner Cable s VP of interactive TV and advanced advertising. We expect this new Fantasy application to be as popular and convenient a feature for baseball fans.”
YES Network says yes to iTV
While Time Warner Cable dabbles in fantasy sports, DirecTV and the YES Network are rolling out an interactive application to DirecTV subs in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut that, with the help of MLB.com, will keep viewers on top of the box scores for Yankee games and other games around the league.

Features include live, up-to-the-minute interactive scores of other MLB games; live interactive in-game, historical and league statistics; instant access to live in-game box scores and even a daily interactive game.

One of the top features? A bonus StarCam feed which will have a dedicated standard-definition camera within Yankee Stadium that will follow different players during the game. StarCam might show Derek Jeter in the field for the top of an inning, says Ray Hopkins, YES Network COO. Viewers can tune to the service and see the StarCam on 75% of the screen while the regular YES telecast takes up the remaining portion of the screen.

More than baseball
Earlier this year Time Warner Cable also offered “NBC Olympics NOW,” a service which accompanied NBC s coverage of the recent Winter Olympics, and which was available to Time Warner digital subscribers in Columbia, Green Bay, San Antonio, Waco, and Corpus Christi. It allowed viewers to track the performance of the US Olympics team via constantly refreshed medal counts, event telecast schedules, news and athlete bios.

The fundamental technology sits on the set-top box and it pulls in data from third-party sources, says Carpe. An application is then installed at each cable head-end and the set-top box talks back to the server in the headend. That approach, says Carpe, allows the system to be backwards compatible and maintain a smaller footprint on the set-top box so other iTV applications can reside there as well. It also lowers capital expenditures.

And then there is the more fundamental issue of what Carpe calls A-key
awareness, ensuring the viewers even know the service exists. Cable
operators need to be aggressive in marketing it so that viewers can see
how cool and engaging it is, he says. It will also help reduce churn.
Fantasy sports, adds Carpe, are an important driver of iTV. Our strategic direction will lead us down a path where we re working with existing fantasy vendors and integrating the online services with the TV experience, he says. Then we ll move out of fantasy and use the underlying technology to offer personalized sports portal on TV with news and scores.

The trick for any interactive application, of course, is ease of use and a quality experience. There are certain instances where a full-screen iTV service would make sense but 95% of the time you want to enhance the viewing experience without getting in the way.

Operators also don’t want iTV to get in the way of advertising. The DirecTV service, for example, won t be active during commercials, ensuring that interactive-happy viewers don t use it as a way to avoid spots.

This is really about putting our foot in the water and figuring out how we use these services moving forward, says Hopkins. Ultimately a lot of eyes [in the league] will be watching how successful this is, and there is certainly the potential for other regional networks to offer similar services.