With Simon Gunning’s respected history in interactive TV – he was fundamental in the rollout of new interactive business strategies across five major UK digital broadcast channels during his time at Flextech Television – you’d expect he’d be eager to discuss the future of red button services. Instead, he quickly turns a conversation about digital media platforms towards ever-emerging mobile opportunities.
Although the British are pioneers in interactive (or, what Gunning calls the digital ancillary market), he says, ‘Our model in the UK, having spent loads of money on red button interactivity, is moving almost completely towards mobile as far as options for immediate interactivity with broadcast.’ And he believes the digital interactive market in Germany, and possibly even the US, will do the same.
Currently director of interactive at uk prodco Celador, Gunning explains that while interactive TV can bring impressive results, it also has drawbacks. For instance, he says, ‘In the UK, whilst you can do certain things very well with your remote control – you can deliver some rich content, you’ve got the immediacy of interactivity – what you can’t do is unify your services across all platforms.’ This means uk commercial broadcaster heavyweight ITV can’t use red button services exclusively because many viewers are still on cable, digital terrestrial or analog.
‘For every platform, the economic model only works if you give away a set-top box,’ he continues, ‘because nobody’s going to spend money on one unless it’s got all sorts of things, like a PVR. [But you then] can’t go back out 18 months later and upgrade it because that’s just too expensive.’ In response to predictions that 50% of the US will be interactive capable by 2009, Gunning says, ‘In order to do that, they’re going to have to give boxes away, which means in five years time, they’re going to be dumb boxes – stupid things that just give you video.’
Gunning contrasts that with the capabilities of mobiles. ‘They’re ubiquitous – in the UK we have more mobiles than people – and they’re more clever than set-top boxes. My mobile can do more than any set-top box.’ And, since mobiles have a return path built in, viewers are able to engage in dialog, such as casting a vote or making purchases, and also be charged instantly.
‘When you pick up your mobile phone, you’re instinctively expecting to pay for something – that’s just the way it works,’ says Gunning. ‘To turn a viewer into a customer, you don’t have to do too much – and if you can combine the in-built return path with a natural willingness to pay, then you’ve got everything covered.’
That is, providing your brand is strong. ‘It’s abundantly clear that what’s going to stand out in this digital smog is brand- and product-led,’ notes Gunning. ‘We’re increasingly seeing that program brands are leading people from platform to platform rather than channel brands,’ he explains. ‘Consumers buy their favorite brands and products wherever they can find them, so for products like Idol and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, they won’t differentiate where they buy them. So we make spectacular amounts of money from mobile telephony, interactive dvds and online games.’
Back when ring tones sounded more like rings than rap tunes – in the early days Gunning was with Flextech – he was largely responsible for spending ‘massive amounts of money’ on red button interactive TV services. He contends that groups including Flextech, the BBC, Channel 4 and BSkyB dictated the way the digital interactive tv platform developed, which was largely towards set-top box technology. But Gunning doesn’t consider Europe’s push into interactive tv a mistake, preferring to call it a learning curve. While he sees Germany and the States rapidly advancing with Internet Protocol tv, it’s another platform that needs to be rolled out to millions of people in order to have a critical mass, whereas mobile already has that critical mass.
Seems opportunity is just a phone call away.