Torin Douglas: Wimbledon 2001 to serve digital TV sceptics an ace

The BBC’s new Wimbledon Interactive service is set to be a hit with viewers and will rally some much needed support for beleaguered digital TV.

For years, whenever I’ve been asked to give one good reason why anyone might want digital or interactive TV, I’ve answered “because one day there’ll be so many channels you’ll be able to choose which court you watch at Wimbledon”.

Finally, it’s about to happen. The new service will start in a month’s time, when the nation’s eyes and ears traditionally turn to SW19, and for tennis fans it will be a genuine benefit. More importantly, in an interactive world that baffles most people, “BBC Wimbledon Interactive” is simple, straightforward and easy for anyone to understand.

Until now, interactivity in TV sport has meant a choice of camera angles, action replays, statistics and breaking news – some of which have performed better than others, depending on the supplier of the service. Videotron blazed the trail, years ago, with extra camera angles for local football matches. Unfortunately, as regular readers of this column may recall, Videotron’s service never matched the promise and we had to wait for Sky Sports Active to show how interactivity should be done.

When I previewed Sky’s service in a presentation at the TV ’98 Conference in Barcelona, I was besieged by people wanting to know more. “That’s the first example of interactive television I’ve actually wanted to watch,” said one media director.

Since then Sky Sports Active has developed and matured, to be followed by Sky News Active, which last week received a record response from viewers when it asked them to vote on the rights and wrongs of John Prescott’s punch. Over 37,000 people voted using their Sky Digital handsets – 62 per cent supporting the deputy prime minister, 38 per cent saying he was wrong. A third interactive service – Sky Movies Active – offers viewers a choice of trails for forthcoming Sky Box Office movies, reviews and news.

Meanwhile, last summer, the BBC was providing a limited interactive Wimbledon service in conjunction with ONdigital. Alongside pictures of the chosen BBC 1 or BBC 2 match in the corner of the screen, viewers could scan text pages giving the match line-ups, player profiles and results. Some found it a bit pedestrian, but the facts and figures were worthwhile – and it won a BAFTA Interactive award for innovation. This year, ONdigital will be offering a similar Wimbledon service – with a new design and other improvements – and Telewest cable viewers will also get an enhanced text service for the first time.

But the real breakthrough is available on satellite to Sky Digital viewers. BBC Wimbledon Interactive has been developed jointly by BBC Sport and BBC New Media – a significant example of the growing integration of new media within the corporation’s programme output. Viewers watching coverage on BBC 1 or BBC 2 on digital satellite will get an on-screen prompt to press the red button on their handset. This takes them through to a multiscreen, displaying five small screens down the left hand side of the screen – the live broadcast on the main channel, plus four alternative live matches. There’s live commentary on each match and each screen has its own automatically updated scoreboard.

Like the Community Channel I recently wrote about (MW May 10), it’s a classic example of the benefits of having dozens of TV channels – as opposed to the disadvantages deplored by critics such as The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee.

Of course digital television means there is more of what is bad about television – but it can open new opportunities too, often by changing the economics of broadcasting. Removing digital scarcity means broadcasters can enhance viewing choice by building on the resources that have already been put in place to serve the existing terrestrial channels.

At its most basic, this means “another chance to see”. Why are repeats on television deemed a bad thing, when cinemas put on the same films night after night and week after week and it’s acceptable to buy or rent a video of your favourite film or TV series?

The same principle holds for BBC News 24. If the licence payer has invested millions of pounds in installing BBC correspondents and facilities all over the world, and throughout the UK, it makes sense for viewers to have access to them when they want, or when news breaks, and not only in pre-set bulletins of half an hour on the main terrestrial channels. For a relatively limited extra outlay, it means the BBC’s initial investment is working much harder and giving greater choice to those that want it.

And now it’s true of Wimbledon. The BBC has always put huge TV and radio resources into covering Wimbledon, with cameras and commentators at many courts – not just Centre Court and Number 1. Even when there was simultaneous coverage on BBC 1 and BBC 2, viewers had to watch the matches chosen by the producer. Now, if they’ve got digital satellite, they’ll have a choice of five matches, all the time.

Digital and interactive television are going through something of a crisis of confidence at the moment, with two of the most expensively-launched and pioneering brands being put out to grass. ONdigital is being absorbed by ITV and renamed ITV Digital, and Open is being absorbed by Sky and, though the name will survive for some time, many of its services will migrate into Sky Interactive.

But the fact remains that digital and interactive TV still have huge potential, and as we flick from Tim Henman on Centre Court to Anna Kournikova on Number 2 and back to André Agassi on Number 1, let’s not forget it.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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