Convergence is the topic of the moment, particularly for such major television broadcasters as CNN, Discovery, PBS and the BBC. All agree that it’s coming, it’s important and it deserves serious financial investment, but no two concur on what the term actually means. How each broadcaster defines convergence is inherently linked to how they expect to approach it in the coming years. Here’s what some of the senior executives had to say:
My definition is this…
Miguel Garcia, VP of software development & technology strategy – CNN
It’s the marriage of the online world and the TV world. That’s the standard definition. You could go all the way from something where you have two separate devices and you do simulcast-type of convergence programming [on TV and online] – I would say that’s the low end of the spectrum of convergence applications – to what we call virtual channels. Basically, you’re sending data and programming on top of the video, but it’s not necessarily synchronized with the program. In terms of getting to that convergent final destination, we’d typically start with something that looks like a virtual channel. You might be looking at news, but if you want to go deeper or read about the context of that news event, you have additional data.
Jeff Craig, Senior VP interactive technology & new media development – Discovery.com
When I talk about convergence, I talk about the space between the two established mediums. We consider the Internet to be an established medium. A lot of people talk about convergence in the old sense of the convergence of the TV and the computer, in which you’re looking at devices. We’re looking at mediums, one being television programming and the other being web programming, and that’s the space of convergence. We’ve boiled it down to the next level of thinking of convergence in the more realistic sense.
John Hollar, Executive VP, learning ventures – PBS
Convergence to us means taking advantage of the extraordinary relationship that people feel with public television. For a very long time we’ve had the question, ‘What can we do to extend the off-broadcast experience to [our viewers]?’ We’ve had no really good way to answer that question until digital technology came along, first with the Internet – where we’ve had a fabulous experience and a lot of success – and now moving into broadband and digital television. We’re discovering this incredible digital feedback loop, where people can go well beyond TV into an interactive learning and exploring site that they love. So, convergence to us means tapping into that personal relationship in a way that combines the best of television, the best of interactivity, the best of the Internet, and the best of new digital technology, to fulfill our educational and cultural mission.
David Docherty, Director of new services – BBC
I’ve yet to see a convincing convergent proposition from any broadcaster, let alone from us. We’re doing enough work to position ourselves for the breakthrough when it cumulatively builds up. We’ve got enough people thinking about enough things, and when we can put them all together at the right moment, with the right funding behind it and the right technology available, then I’m pretty sure the spontaneous combustion will happen . . . You can imagine a world, whether it’s commercially provided or publicly, where the TV set is a place where you can engage other people via broadband internet and play games as opposed to watching telly. Now that would be true convergent media.
Always have a plan…
David Docherty doesn’t know what the future holds, particularly when it comes to convergence, and he’s certain he’s not alone. ‘Anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen next is lying.’
Still, plans have to be made lest the Beeb be caught unprepared later. The pubcaster has adopted an approach of practical short-term planning and cautious long-term planning. Docherty explains: ‘All we’re doing is making sure we keep thinking about how we position ourselves properly. How
do we invest adequately in it but not spend too much – because as a public investor you can’t afford to over-invest – and how do we get the right talent in the organization best able to drive it forward?’
In terms of staking out a spot on the technological playing field, the BBC has decided to try to cover all the bases. ‘What we’ve done is assume that all of the technologies will win,’ Docherty says. ‘We’re developing content for everything that’s out there, whether it’s mobile phones or PCs or TVs. A lot of our projects are now commissioned for TV as well as for online and for interactive. We’re taking a lot of bets on the future.’
So far, content development has been compartmentalized, but the BBC is planning to change that. Says Docherty, ‘What we haven’t yet cracked – and we’ve got to in order to make this whole convergence age make sense – is how we put together all the commissioning and all the production for all of our content, so that people are thinking through convergent issues from day one to the end of the production.’ Once staff are given the power to commission across the whole media, he adds, they will take a powerful step forward.
The BBC’s spending on interactive TV and online is in the millions, though it doesn’t compare to its current investment in analog media. ‘We’ve put about £20
million (US$31.5 million) or so into online,’ Docherty says. ‘We’re putting about £3 to 4 million (US$4.7 to 6.3 million) into interactive TV at the moment, but we spend over £1 billion (us$1.6 billion) on analog media. And on the rest of digital media we’re spending about 10% of the license fee. So, each year we’re spending about £200 million (US$315 million) on digital plus the Internet because distribution is obviously very expensive for us.’
As part of infrastructure changes, new divisions have sprung up that include such previously unheard of positions as coders – people who understand how to write code for interactive TV. ‘Suddenly you’re dealing with a whole other form of creativity . . . There’s a different kind of brain around the organization,’ Docherty notes.
Though he doesn’t claim to know what convergence will bring in the years to come, Docherty is willing to offer his best guess. ‘I think you’ll begin to see a proper, highly created convergent media emerging in the next one to five years. You need smart boxes on TV sets, and they’re beginning to emerge both in the U.K. and in the U.S. You need decent amounts of storage on the boxes and you need decent amounts of capacity. I can begin to see it happening in the U.K.’
By Jeff Craig’s definition, convergence means the ability to tell a story across multiple media, and in his estimation Discovery is well on its way to achieving that goal. ‘I would say we’re beyond the test mode of convergence. We are no longer really experimenting or trialing convergence. We’ve identified some areas and some platforms where we are introducing a convergent experience.’
OpenTV, WebTV and Wink are three platforms that Craig mentions specifically, all of which are inter-active television services. Last year, two programs were enhanced to run on WebTV – Great Quakes for TLC and In Search of Liberty Bell 7 for the Discovery Channel. The enhancements allowed viewers to access such information as background statistics while the program was on the air. Says Craig, ‘The program was always running full-motion on the screen. It may have been re-sized to a quarter-screen at some point during the program enhancement, but that sizing or depth was determined by how far the consumer wanted to go.’
Development of content for the Wink and OpenTV platforms are still in the works, but they’ll have ‘a very similar navigational or consumer experience strategy behind them,’ Craig says. ‘One thing we want to achieve is common knowledge of how to navigate enhanced television applications, so the consumer knows what to expect and when to expect it. It’s like knowing to go to the file menu on a PC in order to print a document. Not that we want a computer experience on the TV, but we want to embed a notion of people knowing where to go to do things and what to expect when they do it.’
In addition to the enhancements of the TV program, more detailed information on the subjects was made available on the Discovery.com website. In the case of the Liberty Bell 7 expedition, for example, live camera footage of the space capsule restoration was posted regularly prior to the December 1999 broadcast of the program, and remains accessible even now.
Discovery’s recently announced pledge of US$500 million to its dot-com arm is not all destined for convergence however. Only a portion of the money (which they claim will be doled out over the next three years) has been allotted for broadband and enhanced TV development, Craig says. ‘As these mediums evolve, where one – whether it’s broadband, narrowband or enhanced television – becomes more of the ubiquitous environment, that funding is going to be reflected in the medium that is most prevalent.’
Though he refused to be more specific about quantity, Craig did elaborate on how Discovery plans to spend funds set aside for convergence. ‘One is infrastructure, the environment in which to develop the applications and deliver the interactive television and broadband applications to the consumer, whether it’s on a TV or PC. We have to get it to the nodes, whether it’s a cable modem node or a central office full of DSLs. We have to have the capabilities for producing the content and delivering it in a very efficient and consumable way to the various nodes.’
The second important area is content development. ‘We are producing content that is leveraging production on the television, as well as on the Web. It’s creating its own form of content in a new medium, therefore it can leverage those resources, but it does require some unique thinking and dedicated production skills and resources.’ The other two areas to which money has been allotted are rights acquisitions and consumer research, he adds.
Craig is hopeful that Discovery will be able to recoup its investment, citing advertising, sponsorship and e-commerce as likely means. ‘And then there’s subscription in a number of ways,’ he notes. ‘One would be to create a service that’s so compelling, either in the broadband or enhanced TV space, that somebody would be willing to pay a little extra a month, and/or a pay-per-view model, where you pay for a particular viewing of a program – such as video on demand . . . As we spend, we’ll recoup along the way.’
Like its British counterpart, the U.S. Public Broadcasting System is hedging its bets on where convergence is headed. ‘We’ve come up with a strategy called cope – create once and play everywhere,’ says John Hollar. ‘We’re trying to be very forward looking, thinking that some of this will happen on DVD, some on broadband, some on interactive digital television, and some on interactive DBS.’
An integral part of the PBS cope strategy is ‘parallel production,’ a term coined by Liesl Clark, a nova producer at WGBH in Boston. Hollar explains that back in 1995, when NOVA sent a science team to film on Everest, Clark was the pioneer who set up computers at base camp and initiated the web creations. ‘We had these amazing, interactive, real-time Everest events from the mountain beginning in 1995, and that also included the first live webcast of audio from the summit in 1996.’ The film, ‘Everest: The Death Zone,’ aired in February 1998.
More recently, Hollar pegged The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (produced by London’s Atlantic Productions, in association with PBS and distributor Devillier Donegan Enterprises of Washington, D.C.) as ‘the most robust example of our model for the future.’
Aside from the 3 x 60-minute, US$650,000 TV program, Atlantic producer Anthony Geffen helped create two different versions of a website – one for a standard internet connection and one optimized for broadband; two DVDs – one with interactivity and one with just the film; and two models of the program for digital broadcast. ‘So that’s taking a single, wonderful doc, adding some production support to it and turning it into an incredible array of both television and interactive forms,’ Hollar says.
On the digital television side, Hollar cites PBS’ partnership with Intel as key to the pubcaster’s advancement. ‘We’re working with Intel in the whole simultaneous interactivity area. We demonstrated our first generation ‘always on’ interactive television channel at the Consumer Electronics Show [January 6-9, Las Vegas], and we’ll take it a step further at NAB [National Association of Broadcasters' convention, April 8-13, Las Vegas] with Intel. Our vision is that in the digital television area, we’ll have a 24-hour channel that will always have some level of interactivity as a part of it. Most of that will be simultaneous with a television program, and some will be post-broadcast.’
PBS’ total national production budget is over US$200 million per year, and Hollar says they’re trying to use that budget as a lever to promote parallel productions. ‘Everybody is a little intimidated by the cost of doing true parallel productions, and so we’re really having to look at production budgets and squeeze every dollar we can out of the projects we choose for this kind of development . . . Some of the expense is just simply involved in executing our whole web strategy. Some of it is involved in finding the right tools to create a 3-D tour of the Parthenon, for example. I wouldn’t say that it doubles the production costs for a project – the additional cost is far below that – but it’s still an additional expense we have to worry about.’
Regardless of cost, Hollar is convinced that PBS must continue to define itself as a serious player. ‘I don’t think broadcasters, or anyone who is in media today, has the luxury of waiting until someone figures it all out because by the time consumers tell us what they want, it’s going to be far too late to get in the game.’
Since convergence became the topic du jour, one of the central debates to emerge has been over which device will ultimately dominate, the TV or the PC. The question has been given new impetus with the looming deal between U.S. media empire Time Warner (CNN’s parent company) and internet giant America Online. (The companies are currently awaiting U.S. Senate approval.) Speaking for CNN, Miguel Garcia says he doesn’t envision one precluding the other. ‘From our point of view, they’re not mutually exclusive. You have an audience for the PC and for the TV.’
Rather than focusing on the tools to receive information, he says, CNN is concentrating on the production of content. ‘No matter what the destination is, or what device [content] is presented through, we want to have a single production process. Production is what’s really expensive. What you’ll see us moving into is an integrated production process, where the content is created once and can be distributed via the computer, either via video streaming or some other method, including simulcast, all the way to truly interactive TV on your set-top box combination. That’s the kind of approach we plan to use.’
When asked what the AOL merger will mean for CNN, Garcia replied, ‘AOL is very strong. There is an AOL TV initiative. I’m pretty sure that we will support it.’ He declined to elaborate further.
On the interactive TV front, CNN has a Wink channel and is also pursuing a deal with OpenTV, Garcia says.
‘We have been very strong proponents of a standard called ATVEF,’ he explains. ‘ATVEF is a standard for the production and distribution of enhanced television. Fundamentally, it’s based on enhancing the video with html-based content, which for us is the ideal scenario. We already have a lot of content in HTML from our
website. Our content is usually castable into HTML, and you could put this content into the end device.’
In terms of CNN’s web development, Garcia says they are currently using video streaming to create a convergent experience. ‘There’s a section on the CNN website, a sub-site called video select. You’ll find a lot of the documentary stories in both text and video, through video streaming. That’s an example of distributing that same content, that production, through a computer. But it’s the same material. It’s converging what we have on TV and what we have online. It’s actually produced at very high levels of resolution and quality, so we can take that same material and we can cast it into broadband.’
Garcia wouldn’t comment on how much CNN is investing in convergence planning, saying only that the investment in enhanced TV is tied to investment in CNN.com. Plans for recouping investment follow the usual pattern. ‘It’s advertisement. It’s e-commerce,’ he says. ‘We are not necessarily interested in selling goods, but [rather] aggregating eyeballs into the e-commerce players, and in some cases the licensing of content. Those are the three avenues.’
Garcia figures CNN is about a year-and-a-half to three years always from full convergence.
Enhanced TV is a television system that allows viewers to access a data stream of additional information (such as stats or background material) about the program they are watching while it’s on the air.
Interactive TV takes enhanced TV one step further, in that it allows viewers to send information back to the broadcasters. Options it allows include polling, home shopping and home banking.
Open TV’s interactive technology is offered via digital set-top boxes. Unlike the Internet’s open system, incoming and outgoing data on the Open TV interactive set-up is controlled by the broadcasters. The service allows users such options as personalized sports coverage and inter-active banking (by swiping a smart card through the set-top box). Open TV is available in more than 4.5 million set-top boxes across Britain (through BSkyB), France (TPS) and Spain (ViaDigital).
WebTV, which was acquired by Microsoft in 1997, provides consumers with access to the Internet and enhanced TV viewing. Users connect their televisions to WebTV through a standard phone line and can surf the Web, as well as send and receive e-mail. They navigate using a special WebTV remote control.
Wink doesn’t require special set-top boxes or Internet access to provide enhanced TV. Instead, it uses the cable systems already in place, and embeds information into existing TV data streams. To access an enhancement, the viewer uses the TV remote control to click an on-screen icon.
A Smart box is a small server which provides interactivity and retail services, using devices such as the television screen.
True Video on demand refers to a viewer’s ability to request any TV program they want at whatever time they desire. VOD systems, which do not yet exist, would require servers capable of sending numerous streams of video simultaneously to different viewers.
Interactive DBS refers to a television system – delivered by direct broadcast satellite – that permits an exchange of information between the viewer and the broadcaster.
ATVEF, which stands for Advanced Television Enhancement Forum, is a cross-industry alliance of companies representing the broadcast and cable networks, television transports, consumer electronics, and PC industries.
Sources: www.itvnews.com, www.atvef.com, www.tagish.co.uk/ethosub, www.dbsdish.com