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For tests with Cox and other cable operators, PBS producers are repurposing web pages, like this one from Nova, to be featured in "walled gardens."

PBS ventures into cable’s interactive
‘walled gardens’

Adapted from Current, Nov. 13, 2000
By Steve Behrens

It sounds like a lovely place to be—a "walled garden," a refuge where viewers frolic and gorge themselves with the fruit of interactive TV, without all the competition and distractions of the Web. And PBS is starting the enhanced TV era as a lucky insider in the garden.

In cable operators' tests now beginning in Baltimore and San Diego, remote-wielding viewers who want to take a break from TV will be able to click the "Education" button on the screen and see weblike text and graphics related to Nova—or click "Lifestyle" and select MotorWeek pages. NewsHour, Zoom, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and local productions of Maryland PTV and KPBS will also be options in various content categories. The tests are coordinated with Liberate Technologies, of San Carlos, Calif., a leading designer of software for cable set-top boxes.

[PBS announced after Current deadline that it will work with Twin Entertainment Inc. to develop educational games for cable based on PBS Kids programs, starting with a game called ZOOMnoodle. And it will work with RespondTV, a San Francisco data infrastructure company, as its preferred enhanced TV provider.] PBS said it will also announce further field tests with cable operators. (In the past, PBS has discussed holding trials with AT&T Broadband in the Denver area and with Cablevision in the New York City market.)

Why is public TV auditioning for a role in these so-called walled gardens?

"For us, it's a real estate play," says Deron Triff, PBS's director of business development for enhanced TV. Having material in the walled garden gives PBS a chance to accustom viewers and cable operators to public TV as a content provider, giving it "a place at the table," according to a September memo to the stations by Cindy Johanson, PBS senior v.p., Internet and broadband services.

And the experience in the cable trials will help public TV develop plans for future enhanced TV services in digital broadcasting, whenever that develops.

A walled garden is "a closed website that doesn't have hyperlinks out to the Internet," says Triff. Subscribers to many cable systems may be able to delve into the Internet through their cable connections, but they won't do it through the walled gardens.

Cable operators say they must restrict the gardens' content to make sure that pages are designed with big text that can be seen from the viewer's easy chair, and to prevent improper coding from crashing the viewer's set-top box, says Triff.

But he adds, "They're sort of hiding under that premise. It's a bit of a smokescreen."

What the cable operators want most of all is to be able to track their subscribers' interests and build viewer profiles for cable's version of online sales—"t-commerce." Programmers will build interactive sales opportunities into more and more programs, and fight with cable companies and other middlemen over the revenue split, according to Forrester Research. Though the advent of digital video recorders will hurt advertising sales by enabling viewers to skip commercials, the boom in t-commerce will more than make up the loss, Forrester predicts.

Already, nearly 5 million households watch TV with Wink, Web TV or other interactive services, according to a Forrester study, and that will double next year and reach 65 million by 2005. Cable and satellite companies will install 10 million set-top boxes in the next three years, according to the study.

However, many of the same things that make a walled garden attractive to a cable operator—such as focusing viewers' attention on a limited number of weblike pages—also raise fears that cable gatekeepers will exclude controversial ideas and special-interest content as well as competing merchandisers.

Cable hijacks the Internet?

"I believe this is the cable industry's plan to hijack the Internet," says Jeff Chester, a media watchdog with the Center for Media Education in Washington, D.C. For many viewers, he predicts, cable operators are creating closed networks that will substitute for the Internet. "They're hot-wiring their architecture to make sure the walled garden is the first thing you see [when you turn on the TV]," he says.

Naturally, PBS would rather be inside than out. By being involved in the walled garden tests, public TV will be able to try t-commerce, as well as pledge, membership and underwriting transactions. The stations will experiment with giving access to special information as a perk for their members, Johanson said. Underwriters will offer polls, quizzes and other "enhanced sponsorship" interactions. Except for the material aimed at children, PBS's program-related pages will also offer merchandise.

PBS wanted a role in the tests, but only under certain conditions. The network applied several criteria in negotiations, Johanson reportedly said during the Fall Planning Meeting last month:

Next step: synchronicity

The cable operators' tests of enhanced TV may morph directly from experimental to operational, says LaRussa. "If they like what they see, they'll continue to roll it out."

And the trials may also move promptly out of the basic walled-garden architecture. Viewers can visit these walled gardens "sort of like going to a library and picking a book off the shelf," says DiGiovanni. Most of the content is related to video programs on cable, but it's not downloaded automatically with specific programs.

One of the next steps will be connecting programs to their own "program-synchronous" interactive material. Each series or perhaps each episode will bring along the equivalent of its own mini-website of related text, graphics and interactive links.

"We'll learn what it takes to produce enhanced content of various types for different platforms and what works best for a range of properties," said Johanson in her September memo. PBS wants to learn more about what viewers want, how to repurpose web pages, how the signal is delivered, the quality of reception in analog and digital receivers, content authoring tools and data insertion hardware.

 

. To Current's home page
. Earlier story: Cable experiments anticipate what public TV can do with enhanced DTV broadcasting in the future.
. Outside links: Liberate Technologies, designer of the set-top cable boxes used in the first trials; Respond TV, PBS's enhanced TV middleman; and the Twin Entertainment game company, a joint venture of Two Way TV and Interactive Network.

Web page posted Nov. 22, 2000
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