Torin Douglas: Kit Kat’s break into iTV is a fillip for advertisers

The potential of interactive TV has been slow to develop, but Kit Kat’s tie-up with a Hull broadcaster is a simple but vital step forward, says Torin Douglas

The latest interactive television (iTV) tie-up looks like a marriage made in heaven – or at least in Yorkshire, which to some people comes as much the same thing. Kingston Interactive Television, which proclaims that the future of television is in Hull of all places, has signed up its first big-name advertiser for the launch of its video-on-demand service.

It found the client just up the road in York and, even more conveniently, the brand in question is almost its namesake. Since the Kingston TV service brands itself as KIT, what better brand to dominate its screens over the next two months than Kit Kat? (Except, in this e-world, perhaps Kit-e-Kat?)

KIT delivers 60 channels of digital TV down the ordinary telephone line to a potential 100,000 homes in Hull and East Yorkshire. Its broadband service is via ADSL technology, and it’s seen as a pioneer, offering e-mail, Internet access and other interactive services. Next week it launches video-on-demand allowing its 10,000 subscribers to choose from more than 800 hours of films and TV programmes. They can watch their selection in their own time – pausing, fast-forwarding, and rewinding as they wish – and also get &£1 off their first video rental, courtesy of Kit Kat.

Like many advertisers, Kit Kat’s manufacturer Nestlé has been keen to get involved in iTV but had not been sure how – until its marketing director Andrew Harrison saw the Kingston set-up. According to KIT managing director Kevin Walsh: “KIT is the only platform where brands can create and deliver an integrated message using different marketing techniques.”

Such a move is about time. The ad industry’s iTV efforts have been surprisingly disappointing so far, not through a lack of ideas from bright ad agencies but because of the technological difficulties – particularly over system compatibility – that still dog such ventures.

Kit Kat’s answer is not ground-breaking, but it is straightforward, capitalising on the similarity in names and the “Have a Break” concept. A series of ten-second ads, already made for mainstream TV, will lead viewers to a promotional screen offering &£1 off to the first 1,000 customers in November and December. The brand will also sponsor the KIT e-mail service, while keys will link to the Kit Kat ads.

Kit Kat’s is not the only initiative in this area. After a series of fits and starts, iTV – which has always offered much more promise than it has actually delivered, particularly in its use by advertisers – is going through a burst of great activity, on a variety of platforms and channels.

The Kit Kat campaign comes hot on the heels of a major deal between KIT and the BBC, which is investing &£25m in Hull, partly to develop regional TV and radio facilities, but also to test the potential of broadband interactive services in entertainment, education, news and information.

The BBC director-general Greg Dyke is taking personal charge of the development. “My ambition is to harness all of the benefits that digital technology provides” he said at the launch. “New interactive technologies provide the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, with a unique opportunity to get closer to its audience. And Hull will be seeing the future of broadcasting before the rest of the country.”

Rival platforms might challenge that notion, but Walsh claims he can answer them. The cable companies NTL and Telewest can offer full broadband – huge digital “pipes” able to deliver rapid Internet and a profusion of television – but they have got bogged down in debt and have not provided a focused test-bed of the sort KIT is offering in Hull. In London, Home Choice is offering viewers another ADSL phone-line TV service, with many hours of films and programming, but KIT says the company doesn’t offer broadcast TV channels as the Hull service does.

The real competition, of course, is BSkyB, which has been the pioneer of mass-market interactivity ever since it went digital. And it is at last bringing the slow and clunky Open service into its main platform, so people can access the system without having to leave the programmes. Sky viewers can now e-mail their friends while watching TV. Does KIT really offer more?

Walsh argues that KIT goes further than any other platform because it pulls together the widest variety of material, with an open “protocol” so other organisations – like the BBC – can use it with ease. For most viewers the argument is academic. KIT is only available in Hull and East Yorkshire, though it does have long-term national ambitions – probably in partnership with another operator.

Fortunately for the BBC, it can use the strengths of both KIT and Sky, though there are frustrations in having to rely on other operators to fulfil interactive ambitions. This week it will unveil its interactive “brand” BBC-i, building on the success of ventures such as its Wimbledon service, which let Sky Digital viewers choose their own courts. There’ll be an interactive news service – which is bound to be compared closely with that of Sky – and a spectacular interactive version of the new factual series Walking with Beasts.

Some may question the BBC’s use of the small i symbol, which for Sky EPG users already signifies “information” rather than “interactive”. And others may ask how many of its ambitious interactive proposals it can actually squeeze into a limited amount of bandwidth. But it helps to speed up the interactive bandwagon – whether or not you live in Hull.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News


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