The iTV Doctor Is In!: Can We Save EBIF?
Yeah, I know. EBIF doesn't need saving. It's moving forwards, the cable operators and Canoe are amassing a significant national network of connected homes. Early deployments are showing great results, and the advertising community is paying attention.
And then in a single announcement this week in Cannes, Microsoft announces voice and gesture control of Xbox Live advertising, content and social media. And with 20 million projected Kinect-powered Xbox units by year-end, life just got more interesting.
Now I've always told those who forecast Microsoft-enabled doom and gloom for the cable industry, that when Xbox Live starts eating into cable margins, all the operators have to do is start buying cable-enabled Xbox units instead of set-top boxes, and they'll have the customer, the content, the games and the control all in one nice package. I'm reasonably sure Microsoft would take an order for 20 or 30 million Xboxes that would cost the operators less then the current selection of set-top boxes.
And as those words pass through my lips, I'm reminded of a comment from some Cap Cities ABC exec at a Cable Show about 25 years ago: "When cable is big enough to bother us, we will control it!" Well, it kinda turned out that way, just flipped a little bit.
And, in all honesty, I heard similar tones from the panelists at the first keynote session at this year's NCTA: "We gotta be doing something right, 'cause we're OK."
Yeah. But "OK" is never enough.
So maybe it's time to break the mold. We did that at Showtime in 1980. The brilliant John Sie (whom I was lucky enough to have as a mentor in those early days) reckoned that Showtime had no future if it continued to go head-to-head against HBO. It was a single-pay world, for those who don't remember. And for all intents and purposes, HBO and Showtime had the same movies. HBO had the Pennsylvania Polka Festival (from beautiful downtown Allentown, PA), and Showtime had "Spice on Ice" (let your imagination run wild). But the same line-up of movies.
But at any given time of the day, the two services would probably have different movies on. Choice. Selection. So we tried selling both in a few new builds and had great results. Most people who bought a pay service bought both! And after a few missteps, we figured out how to introduce Showtime into an "incumbent" HBO system.
And today our premium movie channel selections are vast, almost without number.
But here was the key: we didn't fight the competition, we embraced it. In the spirit of the 60's we "co-opted" the competition.
So let's try on that model for today. We know that EBIF does GREAT Trigger--if you want to engage a consumer in a specific piece of content or advertising on television, an EBIF trigger is perfect. But when you get to the set-top box, it can get a little wormy.
But all the available handheld devices (tablets, smartphones and the like), which in this context might be called "companion devices," are built for two-way interaction. It's what they do, and even the most expensive, fancy-schmancy set-top box can't hold a candle to even a first-generation Android, much less the products from Apple.
Here's a possible scenario. We know that most of the operators are working on very fast and very secure in-home networks for their subscribers. Some are already there. In fact, when I walk into my son's apartment, my Blackberry pops up on his Verizon FiOS network map. And from that moment, I can interact with his set-top box on my phone.
But I'm actually not interested in the companion device interacting with the set-top box. I just want to get that elusive "handshake" between the cable service and the companion device. So that the companion device KNOWS what I'm watching at that moment on television.
So let's say that our "test" home has EBIF-enabled service, and a connected network. We're watching a cable network who sends down an EBIF trigger for an enhanced :30 spot. We'll allow that trigger to do its intended job, displaying interactive content if the viewer can a) find the remote control and b) click the right button, within those 30 seconds. And we'll also ask that trigger to tell the set-top box to send a simple message (one-way, very small) back over the network and then forward again over IP to the modem, and the router, and to my connected device (my engineer friends are now screaming about how I simplified that process, but I think you get the idea).
So the message "pings" my connected device, which does not have a specific program open and may even be in sleep mode. The message says something to the effect of "You know that ad you just saw for HALO 19? Click here for a $15 coupon." And from that point on, I'm using the connected device to interact with a commercial that I saw on television.
You don't have to interact ON television to interact WITH television.
Now there are slightly less than a zillion things to worry about with this approach, including the following questions, asked by some folks with whom I've been reviewing this project:
- Does the network or advertiser want to ping every companion device on the network map? We may have to run an enable/disable function, or maybe an opt-in. Proximity to the television doesn't seem possible, because we're not actually "talking to" the set-top box, and the modem/router might be in another room.
- Can the network that sells the "initiating" :30 spot get credit for the entire experience? I think with the cookie crumbs left by the experience on the companion device, and the easily gathered data from the EBIF/set-top box part of the equation, we SHOULD be able to connect the dots and give the network credit for the :30 spot (with confirmed viewing), and "ping" to the companion device (similar to a click on the Internet), and the entire experience on the companion device.
- Aren't people already working on this? Yes, and no. There appears to be ongoing work on a standard for something similar to this, and we ABSOLUTELY need a standard, or we'll never be able to monetize it. But I'm not sure this concept has a very high priority in the overall scheme of things.
- Do we need to have it all "Approved" to do a test run? Actually, no. I may have gathered a small gang of rebels: an operator, a programmer, a couple IT providers and a few engineering types to watch my back. With any luck, we can put together a live "proof of concept" that may result in more rapid development of a standard and more adoption of the concept.
So that's it. Let's co-opt the competition. But let's do it NOW.
If you agree with the premise and want to be involved, please email me confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, as always, you can leave your public comments below.
The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at email@example.com