Can zip bring new life to buttons?

Interactive TV is widely available, but hasn’t captured viewers’ imaginations. A new channel is determined to harness its true potential.

Have you pressed the red button recently? If so, was it for a programme or an advertisement? And was it worth the effort? Interactive television (iTV) is at something of a crossroads. Half the population now have access to it, and the BBC says about half of those use its interactive services each month.

Yet there is a danger that many of those who have tried iTV will have been so underwhelmed by the experience they may not bother again. Too often, there is no indication on the red button of what you’re going to get if you press it. There’s usually a long wait with a caption saying “loading” before you get there. And, when you do, it’s often less interesting than the live programme that you’ve left.

The warning signs are there. Last week, HSBC wrote to me saying it was about to close its TV banking service, which has been running for several years through Sky’s interactive system. From August 25, interactive banking with HSBC must be done via the internet or the telephone. The company said it hoped the closure wouldn’t inconvenience me. The truth is that the service itself was so inconvenient I’d used it only once – it was quicker to go down to the bank and print off a statement from the ATM.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s governors have pointed out that the use of the corporation’s interactive services has not kept pace with the growth in their availability. “The BBC needs to understand and change this trend if enhanced TV is to reach its full potential,” they said in the corporation’s annual report.

Yet at its best, iTV can offer genuine benefits. At the weekend, for instance, the red button could have enhanced your viewing of the BBC’s coverage of the First Night of the Proms (it provided programme notes, so you knew which of Holst’s Planets was which) or the Open golf (by giving you the leaderboard, and a choice of golfers to follow).

Unusually, there were labels on the red button (stating “programme notes” and “leaders”), enticing viewers to press it. And though it seems that little can be done about the lengthy wait, once you are in the interactive zone you don’t usually have to wait again.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 was screening an interactive Honda ad, with eight minutes of video, featuring interviews and other content shot at the Motor Show. The ad was the first fruit of its deal with Zip Television, a pioneering interactive company which has signed up 11 blue-chip advertisers to test iTV advertising. Members include COI Communications, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and, as of last week, the first retailer, Woolworths.

Zip has now – after lengthy and tortuous negotiations – launched its own virtual TV channel, and last week it celebrated the fact with a launch at the top of the BT Tower. It’s a remarkable achievement to have persuaded so many large advertisers to invest in research in this way.

“The Zip TV channel is designed to allow advertisers to push the creative boundaries,” says Honda head of marketing Simon Thompson. “This is the first step in exploiting the creative potential of iTV and we will use these results to refine our future campaigns on the channel.”

Sadly, the event was overshadowed by the fact that Channel 4 is the only TV channel to have signed a contract with Zip so far, restricting the reach of the Honda ad and others planned by the consortium members. The other sales houses – Sky Media, ITV Sales and IDS – want to make sure they are indemnified in the unlikely event that an interactive advertisement should damage millions of set-top boxes. Zip insists there are indemnity arrangements in place – and Channel 4 is happy with that assurance. With the others, there is currently a stand-off.

It is to be hoped that the dispute is resolved, because such creative experimentation is sorely needed. Advertisers seem to be lagging behind programme-makers in finding original uses for interactive television.

Too often, when you press the red button during an ad break, you leave a glossy, highly crafted, entertaining piece of television and find yourself – after the interminable wait – in a much less creative environment, with clunky captions and press-the-button options offering a test drive or a brochure. Is it any wonder that many people scurry back to the familiar world of “real” television and resolve not to press the button again?

Zip managing partner Donna Barradale is keen to involve creative agencies in the process. “So far, this industry has been driven by media agencies, with interactive TV sold as a bolt-on commodity,” she says. “We want to unleash creatives’ freedom, making them realise they don’t have to be constrained by the 30-second commercial. In the interactive world, ads can last many minutes and we’re hoping the creatives will come up with some fantastic ideas.”

At the very least, they could label the red button so viewers know why they should bother to press it. Even if it’s only “Win a Prize!”.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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