Station producers try Web TV enhancements

Buffett & Gates special as seen on Web TVOriginally published in Current, Feb. 22, 1999

By Steve Behrens

A number of public TV stations are experimenting with interactive enhancements of their programs that can be picked up by home viewers using Microsoft's Web TV Plus set-top device.

Seattle's KCTS added Web TV linking data in "Buffet and Gates on Success," distributed nationally by PBS on Jan. 15 [image shown]. Wisconsin PTV's WeekEnd show claimed the first Web TV enhancements of a regularly scheduled weekly TV series, starting Feb. 7. And WFYI in Indianapolis modestly claimed the first interactive TV program produced in the state--its black history series Moving on to Vict'ry, which debuted Feb. 8.

The producers say they're trying the technology to gain experience in interactive production as broadcasters move toward digital TV, which may routinely carry interactive material, text and other data that supplement TV programs.

Unlike future DTV, broadcasts compatible with Web TV don't carry much data in the TV signal, but they provide a limited preview of what DTV can do. The broadcast signal's vertical blanking interval carries links to selected web pages. When a link icon shows up on the screen, the user can click on it to summon up those web pages through Web TV's modem connection to the Internet.

KCTS rigged up the most extensive web content for the Buffet-Gates chatfest, including transcribed outtakes from the billionaires' discussion, their bios, links about finance and the underwriters, e-mail connections, and an order form for videocassettes of the show, according to Tim Olsen, KCTS webmaster. Olsen is now routinely creating Web TV links that air during station breaks--for instance, links to online recipes related to upcoming KCTS Cooks kitchen shows.

The Seattle station's Intris subsidiary plans to release special software called "C3," which can be used to encode not only Web TV links but also closed captioning--both of which are carried on Line 21 of the vertical blanking interval, according to Olsen. The software is a variation on TV Link Creator 2.0, from Mixed Signals Technology of Los Angeles, he said. Stations airing Web TV links must have their own encoding hardware, or hire the encoding done by outside companies.

Wisconsin PTV avoided investing in the specialized software by having engineer Paul Stoffel figure out the hard way to insert the Web TV codes in the TV signal, according to producers. Stoffel studied industry standards documents and rigged up a way to type in the codes through Procomm, an ordinary modem communications program. The downside: he had to type the codes perfectly--no back-spacing allowed.

Under an industry standard, Web TV codes are inserted in a different part of Line 21 than closed captions. But the line's data capacity is so limited that Web TV codes are actually delayed if captions are being transmitted at the same time, Stoffel said.

Because the Wisconsin network's WeekEnd program features breaking news, producers had little time to work up supplementary material for the Web TV links, said project coordinator Andy Soth. One offering is whimsical interactive contests for viewers. Soth also expects to carry statistical data on the topics of major WeekEnd stories.

Wisconsin PTV altered WeekEnd's ordinary web pages to fit the Web TV format, moving important text out of the area where the TV picture will be inserted. Web TV, which is ordinarily viewed on home TV sets, displays text in a large size and does not permit scrolling for long pages.

In Indianapolis, WFYI inserted Web TV links in its four-part black history series Moving on to Vict'ry, including a complete bibliography, downloadable classroom discussion materials and an order form for videocassettes.

The series, excerpted from WFYI's Across Indiana, includes segments on civil rights events and leaders in the state, a championship Negro National League baseball team, an all-black Civil War regiment and other topics.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Web TV President Steve Perlman wows pubcasters with demo at PBS meeting, 1998.

Earlier news: KCTS aligns itself with its hometown empire, Microsoft, 1998.

Earlier news: WGBH and KCTS experiment with Web TV as stand-in for coming interactive DTV technology, 1998.

Outside link: WebTV's resources for web developers, including FAQs and online forums.

Outside link: Detailed discussion of enhancement of Buffett-Gates special on KCTS's Intris site.


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