If take-up of interactive digital TV is as high as predicted, the opportunities for advertisers are numerous – as long as they apprise themselves of the possible pitfalls and technical limitations. Nigel Sheldon is head of Thompson Interactive

Suddenly the prospect of receiving interactive TV services is looming closer, following last week’s go-ahead for the big guns in the UK to start preparing for the launch of digital TV next year.

The award of the final three terrestrial multiplexes to the British Digital Broadcasting consortium acknowledged the importance of sport and movies for the successful take-up of digital TV.

The losing DTN bid promised some genuinely original services. But the overlapping interests between BSkyB-supplied BDB and the BSkyB-led BIB consortium aiming to develop digital satellite services from next year, makes overall provision of interactive services more viable.

BSkyB and BT will have pivotal roles in bringing shopping, banking, betting and other services into our homes through the TV. Many viewers will welcome the notion of interactive services, but there are barriers that will have to be overcome: how many people have a telephone point near their TV set and will there be extra charges for installing one? Channel 5’s retuning exercise has shown that people do focus on the practical aspects of new technology.

Interaction through the new box will be hugely appealing to advertisers. It will be possible to press the “BIB” button at the end of a commercial to order a brochure or be taken to the interactive area. But are advertisers prepared for these new opportunities? Have they thought how best to exploit the one-to-one relationship with the consumer?

Many, of course, are learning from the Net and some have tried to get closer to the TV experience in well-publicised test beds. The interactive TV trials have not always inspired advertisers – the virtual mall in Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando remained virtually empty – but for others, good experience of the test beds will have given an early advantage. Since it is unclear precisely how “signposting” from conventional ads or interactive sponsorship might work in a BIB environment, the chance to experiment in a relatively small test bed, such as VideoNet’s current Hull trial, may prove invaluable.

It is likely BIB’s interactive services will be phased in, with full Net access becoming feasible perhaps a year later. Nevertheless, we estimate that 350,000 to 500,000 homes will take up digital TV in 1998, rising to about a sixth of households by the year 2000. These are significant numbers for advertisers to plan new strategies and experiment around, as well as for discovering possible pitfalls, such as technical limitations and overreaching production costs.

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