Current Online

Hector the bulldog stars in an Eddie Files prototype, one of many illustrating what enhanced TV could become. Click on a folder icon for more. (Image courtesy of FASE.)

Prototypes, field tryouts proceed for enhanced TV

Originally published in Current, July 17, 2000
By Steve Behrens

In April, PBS did not begin airing a 24-hour stream of data "enhancements" for digital TV, as the network had once planned. Delay was prudent because few if any viewers had DTV receivers that could pick up enhanced TV. Nobody's sure when many will.

But that day will come. PBS, for one, still thinks so. Its digital team expects to try enhancements on real-life viewers starting this fall, in four or five field tests with cable-box software companies, according to Tom DiGiovanni, PBS's director of enhanced programming.

CPB and the National Endowment for the Humanities likewise are looking toward the day when broadcasters can download all kinds of digital information to viewers along with broadcasts. The two funders this month announced modest grants for experimental enhancement of seven documentary projects (see box).

Grants back seven doc enhancements

CPB and NEH said July 5 that they will jointly invest $50,000 in DTV enhancements for each of these documentary projects:

  • Crucible of the Millenium, a look at the world's major civilizations in the 15th century and their legacy for today, from Kroyt-Brandt Productions, New York City.
  • Morning Sun, on the history and consequences of China's Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, from the Long Bow Group, Brookline, Mass.
  • Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of the American Century, on the history that made Wilson and the history that he made, from KCET, Los Angeles.
  • Partners of the Heart on the historic partnership of black lab technician Vivien Thomas and white physician Alfred Blalock, who overcame racism to pioneer in heart surgery, from Spark Media Inc., Washington, D.C.
  • This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience, covering 1776 to the present day, from Civil Rights Projects Inc., Boston.
  • Bills to Bytes: The Money Revolution telling how information technology is transforming money, hosted by Robert Cringely and produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting.
  • The Two Towns of Jasper on the reactions of the white and black communities of Jasper, Tex., to the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., from Two Tone Productions, New York.

"Enhancement," so far, is the industry term for program-related data that will stowaway on the DTV signal, but it's a pallid word for an advance with such vivid possibilities.

"I think this will make television essentially a different force within our lives," says William R. Ferris, chairman of NEH. "It will make it less of an entertainment experience and more of a portal to education."

The opportunity to enhance TV "opens up dramatically deeper levels of information," Ferris says. A documentary on William Faulkner, for instance, could be accompanied by outtakes from interviews, photos, even a download of all of the novelist's writings and his papers from archives.

(Ferris himself co-edited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture back in paper-and-ink days a decade ago, but now NEH is backing city, state and regional encyclopedias in digital form. Virtually every future NEH project will have enhancements, web sites or other digital components, Ferris says.)

So far, DTV enhancements are lingering in the prototype stage while industry groups design boxes capable of receiving them.

"Our original projections for the marketplace were more aggressive than they should have been," says Cindy Johanson, v.p. in charge of PBS Online. The network hasn't set another date, so far. Johanson expects to have a clearer view of the future when we get a few months farther into the future.

"If things work out well, the distribution reality will mature at the same time as the artistic reality," says Louis Barbash, a CPB project development officer who does DTV missionary work.

In the meantime, though the broadcast version of DTV hasn't reached reality, enhancements can play on other platforms, now or soon. "DVD is real," says Barbash, "The web is real and getting realer and broader. Cable-based interactivity is getting realer."

Already in service is Web TV, Microsoft's ingenious transitional system that brings web icons, links and interactivity onto the same TV screen with analog broadcast video.

Over-the-air DTV receivers, including tuner cards for personal computers, are not selling well, says Deron Triff, PBS's senior manager of digital business development for enhanced TV. The first sizeable generation of real DTV receivers will be the tuner boxes used for cable service. (To spread access to enhancements, Triff observes, it will be important for cable systems to agree to pass them through to viewers.)

Working with Microsoft, Liberate Technologies, and other makers of software for the cable boxes, PBS will join in field tests to answer questions about enhancements, says DiGiovanni. For instance, what do viewers expect in production values? How can stations insert local data enhancements in national programs?

Johanson expects viewers to go for enhancements in a big way. A survey this spring found that 65 percent of adult Internet users are watching TV while they're online, she points out, and many of them are visiting program-related web sites. "I'm absolutely convinced that something really powerful is going to happen. People want to engage with the content."

Enhanced DTV will give them a number of ways to do that:

Unfortunately, any extensive enhancements that would need to be stored in the receiver's memory will have to wait until DTV sets commonly include a hard disc, like the Tivo and Replay VCR-substitutes now on the market.

To producers, the capability would be golden. "The holy grail in this, frankly, is to get the ability to pause the show while you do something," says Barbash at CPB. But there's no sign that cable companies or consumers are ready to pay the extra cost for a box with a hard disc.

Synchronous: click me now!

That's why it's likely the earliest audience for enhancements will be able to use only synchronous ones.

The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer has been producing synchronous enhancements since January for Web TV users, subsidized by a Microsoft grant. A user who clicks on the "i" icon in the corner of the screen can see short lists of points from a Mexican economic plan or dates of past currency devaluations, which appear left of a shrunken video image.

The technology will let national programs open a window, so to speak, to pertinent local information. When the NewsHour recently released a study of uninsured Americans, Web TV users were able to call up the statistics for their home states, says Lee Banville, editor of the Online NewsHour. This kind of localization is popular at PBS, he says. "'Local/national' is the buzz phrase at PBS in a big way."

In a recent CPB-funded prototype of its enhanced future, the NewsHour offers viewers their choice of audio and text versions of a Pablo Neruda poem in both English and Spanish, according to Banville. With a report on the art collector Duncan Phillips, the program offers high-definition stills of his prized paintings.

Prototypes of enhancements for the KCTS-produced Slate TV, underwritten by Microsoft, let avid "multitaskers" read factoids or respond to quizzes while host Michael Kinsley is talking about subjects that are only loosely related. But other viewers can just refrain from clicking icons and not be distracted. Slate initially will have two staffers producing enhancements for every weekly program, says Executive Producer Jeff Gentes.

Wary of distractions, producers of an enhanced Arthur prototype at WGBH chose only a few key "teaching moments" and designed enhancements that support the message. In one episode about fibbing, Annie Valva recalls, the enhancement asks children to click their remote controls every time they hear Arthur tell a lie.

A few synchronous enhancements may help rather than harm the program, predicts Yanna Kroyt-Brandt, whose staff will be enhancing the historical documentary Crucible of the Millenium. For instance: showing the musical score during a concert. "I know there's a feeling that people can attend to three different images at the same time, but it depends a great deal on what the images are."

When DTV receivers get adequate memory, synchronous enhancements will not have to distract from an ongoing program. In a prototype enhancement of the classroom series Eddie Files (photo, page 1), the program halts while the viewer consults various pieces of supplementary information.

Always-on: take me away!

Broadcasters will let viewers always choose whether they want to see enhancements, DiGiovanni figures, but they may still want to make certain basic navigational options accessible within a click or two.

In one PBS prototype, the viewer could click the "e" icon, which summons up a "dashboard" of standard choices--"Program information," "Sponsors," "Membership" (in your local station), "Help" and "Full screen" (to get rid of the dashboard). In the Slate prototype, viewers have constant access to menu choices including "Outreach," "Pledge," and "Comment" (post a remark on Slate's online bulletin board).

Asynchronous or post-broadcast: see you later!

To producers, the most promising enhancements are the ones that viewers can tap at their leisure after a broadcast is over, says WGBH technologist Annie Valva. Notably, those were the only kind that Ken Burns permitted PBS to add to his "Frank Lloyd Wright" in a 1998 prototype enhancement. Producers who got enhancement grants from CPB and NEH are mostly anticipating what they could give viewers after the film has run.

Andrea Kalin, president of Washington-based Spark Media Inc., wants to expand on the message of Partners of the Heart with audio or video files that profile 50 people of color who made exceptional careers in medicine. Instead of dumping gray expanses of text on her young target audience, Kalin wants to give the added profiles the same emotional power that the documentary has.

Boston producer Richard Gordon says he could mark many places in the forthcoming documentary Morning Sun where viewers could be offered supplementary information, but he'd rather have them do their exploring after watching the documentary all the way through. Like a web site developer, he fears that viewers distracted by a new link will never find their way back to the main program.

But he welcomes the opportunity to offer the option of more information, especially those favorite sequences that, in the end, don't quite fit into the film but still have great value.

Interpolated: take a seamless detour!

Barbash points to Stanley Nelson's way of producing an enhancement that doesn't distract the viewer from the ongoing program, because the program stops while the enhancement becomes a seamless part of it.

In an earlier batch of CPB-funded prototypes, Stanley Nelson and Michelle Halsell produced an enhanced segment of "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords."

"The way the piece works," says Nelson, "you're going along in the main body of the film, and there's a little icon you can click at certain times." One icon comes up during a segment about Robert Abbott, founder of a pioneering black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. "Click on the icon and off you go into a side story with more about Abbott. It has the same narrator, the same music. When that's over in five or six minutes, it returns you to where you left off. It's as if the portion on Robert Abbott was longer."

The technique, like post-broadcast enhancements, may have to wait until receivers have extensive Tivo-like memory.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: PBS's prototype accompanying Ken Burns' Frank Lloyd Wright bio incorporated many media forms in a post-broadcast enhancement, 1998,
. Earlier news: Producers practice for enhanced DTV by creating enhancements for Web TV, 1999.
. Later news: Anticipating enhanced DTV, PBS begins interactive field tests with cable companies, fall 2000.

Web page posted July 26, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000