Coming Soon to a Cable TV Near You: ETV
by Leslie Ellis // September 05 2005
The late summer news from CableLabs that 16 companies accomplished a solid round of interoperability testing for “enhanced TV” products seemed a useful entry into this latest chapter in the decades-long story that is interactive television (ITV).
First things first: The “e” in “eTV” stands for “enhanced.” By definition, eTV is an ITV subset. It exists to send nationally branded enhancements to a particular show or advertisement, as it is airing. The enhancements, or “triggers,” relate to the content that’s airing.
If this sounds familiar, from prior and vendor-specific attempts (Wink comes to mind), there is a difference. It is this: eTV was designed within the MSO community, to be non-proprietary, which eases national reach.
It was architected so that content creatives can pick eTV authoring tools — without having to consider what software is inside the digital set-top, to unfold and run applications. Multi-vendor interoperability, on either end of the wire, was high on eTV’s to-do list.
Aha, you say. Then it’s OCAP (OpenCable Applications Platform).
No. eTV will run on OCAP. It’s even a subset of OCAP — but eTV will run without it, too. By specification, eTV apps run on digital set-tops as “thin” as the early Explorer 2000 units, from Scientific-Atlanta, and the DCT-2000 boxes, from Motorola Broadband.
If OCAP is the whole enchilada, in terms of digital set-top software platforms, then eTV is the jalapeños.
The eTV Backstory
The backstory goes like this: U.S. cable operators were highly motivated to develop a “backatchya” to a digital TV feature well known in England, and likely headed this way from DirecTV. The feature, known in the U.K. as “the red button,” lets customers click to interact with a particular show, as it airs.
In tech terms, eTV and the “red button” are “program synchronous,” or, associated with the program playing. Some also call them “bound” apps — as opposed to “unbound” apps, which aren’t correlated to a particular show. The electronic program guide is one example.
The work to make the eTV idea into a technical specification began in early 2004. By July of this year, two key specs emerged. One is the (wonderfully nerdy) “EBIF,” which stands for “Enhanced Binary Interchange Format.” (People say it in two syllables: Eee-biff.)
EBIF defines how the bits go on the wire. Authoring tools spit their bits out in EBIF. Set-tops interpret EBIF bits. Content providers can pick whatever EBIF-splitting tools they want. Ditto for MSOs and the eTV set-top software they buy. End-to-end becomes end-and-end.
ABC Tests eTV on ‘Lost’
Rewind to late July, and the CTAM Summit, in Philadelphia. There, Walt Disney Internet Group VP Rick Mandler packed a small breakout room to discuss ABC’s eTV plans, which are decidedly mainstream: Six episodes of the network’s popular show “Lost.”
Part of the intent, Mandler said, is to reward people for paying attention. “Lost” builds from one episode to the next. It’s easy to get well, lost, if you miss one. Binding triggered information into the show lets new viewers catch up, and existing viewers flaunt their recall.
Easy on the skepticism. True, the ITV timeline is very long, and beset with mis-steps. If that’s your view, consider: ABC’s research shows that people who use eTV in a two-screen form (watch TV, doubly engage on laptop) are 42% more attentive to the show — and 95% more attuned to advertisements.
ABC’s work figured heavily into the August interop at CableLabs, as did applications from Showtime, The Weather Channel and GSN.
The Business of eTV
There are at least four different technology segments serving eTV. One is the actual applications originators, like ABC. Without them, nothing “cool” happens.
Some creatives use tools that can “output” code compatible with eTV. Others use eTV tools made by a second supplier group, populated by companies like Emuse, Ensequence and GoldPocket Interactive.
Another link in the chain: Makers of “stream generators,” which tuck triggers into shows. Participants include Softel and S&T.
Digital boxes need “user agents,” which are the tight chunks of code that unfold and run eTV applications. EnSequence, GoldPocket, Navic Networks and TVWorks (and specifically its MetaTV subsidiary) are players.
It’s important to note that right now, eTV is still at the stage of a good interop test. Field trials are in early planning. In CableLabs lingo, eTV is generally recognized as a “fast track” item, meaning its members want it out there as soon as feasibly possible.
Also unclear are the boundaries around who buys, operates and maintains what gear, in order to make eTV triggers play. Do all triggers come from content originators, and get passed through network affiliates and cable distribution? Who pays whom?
The blessing and the curse of technical specifications is that they thrive on additions. In the case of eTV, the next version is potentially more exciting than the first (existing) version, because it aims cable at a “feature sweet spot” that cannot be replicated by satellite TV providers.
Think of your favorite TV show. It ends. Up comes a trigger: Want to see another episode? Sure. Guess where it is? On an on-demand server, up in the network. For the satellite guys to replicate this, they’d have to anticipate favorite shows, and download them into the DVR box ahead of time. Seems tricky.
This column originally appeared in the Broadband Week section of Multichannel News.