Media, tech firms think digital

Disney, CNN, and NBC team up with Intel, Microsoft, and others in harmonizing the combination of Net content and TV programming.

4 min read
Some of the most influential media and technology companies are collaborating to create the technological underpinnings for a coming wave of TVs that will combine standard programming with Internet content, and Microsoft appears to be just one of many small fish in a big pond.

Media companies including Disney, CNN, and NBC have teamed up with Intel, Microsoft, CableLabs, Network Computer, and others to work on harmonizing technology for combining Internet content with television programming, according to a joint announcement made today.

The companies have formed an organization, called Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF), which will promote the use of standardized technology, allowing content providers to design interactive content for delivery through cable, satellite, or digital TV platforms.

Marrying TV and Net content
Media, broadcast, and PC companies are working on a standard way to enhance TV programming with Internet content. A group called ATVEF will oversee the efforts.

Proprietary technology for melding TV and the Internet such as Intel's Intercast, WebTV's Crossover Links, Wink's Enhanced Broadcasting, and Wavephore's WaveTop software will likely be subsumed by the new standard.

Specifications for the technology should be ready by the fourth quarter of 1998.

Due to the market's relative immaturity and lack of strong consumer interest, the oft-cited convergence of PC technologies with consumer electronics devices is far from being fully realized, but the group's work could pave the way for everything from handheld video players to digital set-top boxes to finally arrive en masse.

"There are only a certain number of eyeballs out there. [Media companies] want to get content out to those eyeballs, but they don't want to have to do it in five different ways," depending on what kind of viewing device is present and what kind of transmission method is used, said Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group.

For example, a broadcaster who wants to let viewers link to a special Web site that contains information about a show or enable them to buy related products would have to send out information via the broadcast signal in a variety of formats, depending on whether the intended receiver is a TV with an special cable set-top box, a decoder for a digital satellite system, or a WebTV Internet set-top. There are also are several separate formats for use with a PC.

Without a standard way of linking TV content with Web sites, broadcasters essentially have to place a bet on the success of one type of receiver. With a standard in place, proponents say that content providers and distributors would be able to target delivery methods using a wider variety of business models such as various combinations of sponsorships, ad revenues, and subscription-based services.

Doherty hypothesized that the technology could eventually be extended for use in sharing content between PCs, and even handheld devices, which could download videos for playback and then direct users to a store where the product can be purchased.

High-tech heavyweights such as Microsoft and Intel are betting that the next big leap in the computer market will result from sales of easy-to-use convergence devices to the large body of consumers who have previously been averse to the complexities of current PC architecture.

But being a PC industry heavy carries no guarantees in this new arena. Microsoft, for instance, "will struggle to maintain its current position as the de facto standard client platform" according to a recent report from International Data Corporation. The formation of the ATVEF is another example of how Microsoft's dominance in PCs does not automatically extend into new computer-related markets.

"Microsoft is a player in this and not Shakespeare or the theater owner," mused Envisioneering's Doherty. The media companies are driving this initiative, he said, because of a need to effectively reach as wide as possible an audience.

The software giant's goal appears to be ensuring people use only its WebTV platform, or at least a receiver that uses its Windows CE operating system software. But that goal isn't achievable if a wide array of devices can receive the same content.

"It's a little early to exert control over anything in this market," noted Josh Bernoff, senior analyst with Forrester Research. "You can't box it in and say 'I'm in charge' and have nothing to be in charge of. [Microsoft and NCI] can't succeed unless ad agencies and TV networks decide to support it."

Other companies working on the proposal include CableLabs, which is the cable industry consortium that sets technology standards, Tribune Company, which owns a number of television, radio, and print publications, and Sony. DirecTV is the main digital satellite broadcaster represented in the group.

The ATVEF said it will work with other industry groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium to "provide a consistent international blueprint for enhanced products and services," members said in a prepared statement. The final version of the specification, which is currently open for public comment, is expected to be published in the fourth quarter of 1998.

TV receivers compliant with the ATVEF standards are expected to become available in the first half of 1999.