Pipe dreams come true

Interactive TV is couch potato heaven. But, as Mike Exon finds out, the variety should appeal to more than just the slothful. And branding consultancies may not have time to rest…

Television broadcasting looks and feels much the same, despite the launch of digital services from BSkyB and ONdigital. But this is set to change. Forget the Internet for a moment, interactive TV is the place where brand consultancies and design groups can earn a bigger buck, and the keenest are already involved.

The three main UK cable operators – Cable and Wireless Communications, NTL and Telewest – look likely to pull off a super merger, creating a national force capable of competing with BSkyB and Microsoft. Only this week Brown Inc beat Interbrand Newell and Sorrell for the job of branding Telewest’s digital TV service, due to launch before the end of the year. Deepend is designing its electronic programme guide.

Digital cable’s eventual rise will bring with it the long-awaited “fat pipe” which, according to its developers, will offer broadcasters, advertisers and retailers unimaginable potential to redesign their output, thanks to its broadband capability. Cable rivals delivering TV via satellite or terrestrial broadcasts should not be far behind, as Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Loop technology – to bolster non-cable platforms – will offer similar potential for viewers to interact with graphically enhanced broadcasts, interactive shopping malls and advertisements. Brochures can be requested and e-mail sent at the touch of a remote control.

This renaissance is still waiting quietly in the wings. The first eagerly-awaited national launch is due for September, when the Wolff Olins-branded Open home shopping service launches on SkyDigital. Interactive advertising, however, will not quite be available at the outset. CWC Digital will roll out shortly after, so long as NTL keeps things on track following its acquisition. There is undoubtedly still much manoeuvring to be done by the operators.

Interactive branding for TV is already an important area of consultancy, says head of Grey Interactive TV Chris Harrison. Opportunities exist for branding interactive channels like Open, up and coming TV operators like NTL (rebranded recently by Basten Greenhill Andrews), retailers such as Iceland and existing brands looking to implement interactive advertising.

“At the moment nobody quite knows just how interactive TV will develop,” says Harrison. “Internet users are typically ABC1 males, but the demographic for pay TV users is lower income C2D households.” At the moment, branding for interactive TV requires a different set of aesthetic considerations than the Internet.

Harrison adds that consumer research into interactive TV reveals important lessons for brand owners. “The research is slightly peculiar because it is asking lower income households to express an opinion about something they cannot yet touch or see. But it reveals the two biggest concerns about home shopping through the TV: it must be cheaper than retail purchases and have secure credit card payments.” Technology developers may guarantee their payment systems are secure, but that won’t alter the consumer perception that they may not be. And the consumer is king, after all.

Opportunities to brand broadcasting services will increase as digital networks continue to launch. Video-on-demand from the Lambie Nairn-branded Yes TV by Elmsdale Media, is already operating in Cardiff via NTL’s cable network.

“Yes is like having a virtual video store at the end of your TV remote control ,” says Yes head of legal affairs Graham Leversedge. “You have a handset, a set-top box and an electronic menu, which allows you to select the video you want to watch. You are told how much it will cost and then get 24 hours access to the movie, with all the functionality of a VCR. The quality is as good as DVD.”

“We have agreements with Domino’s Pizza and Virgin Vie for home shopping, and you can browse through British Airways holidays.” Yes is shortly to be launched in the Kingston-on-Hull area and then extended further.

Telewest marketing communications manager Chris Fry feels that there are still unexploited openings for design groups. “There are still very few groups which bridge the gap between interactive services, on-screen design and branding,” he says.

Open, the interactive facility on SkyDigital which launches secure home shopping and banking this autumn, is providing behind-closed-doors interactive retail work for groups like Deepend, The Hub and Agency.com (formerly Online Magic). Subscribers will have free access to Open’s on-line shopping mall, filled with virtual shops ranging from Iceland and Carphone Warehouse to HSBC bank. Other interactive trials, such as Microsoft’s Web TV, are being developed with the help of Razorfish.

Interactive TV has been a long time coming and suffered setbacks along the way. The current consolidation within the cable sector suggests that this is not over yet. Interactive services will begin slowly, and require leaps of faith from brand owners just like the Internet has done. But the creative potential of the fat pipe should give designers plenty of opportunities to branch out.

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