Showtime: “The truly big ideas haven’t even been conceived of yet”

David Preisman,  VP Interactive Television, Showtime Networks

David Preisman,
VP Interactive Television, Showtime Networks

When it comes to interactive TV and the cutting edge, David Preisman (VP Interactive Television, Showtime Networks) has an extraordinary amount of insight and experience – as the following fascinating interview with IP&TV News amply demonstrates…

Hi David. You’ve been working on interactive TV projects for a long time. Have we seen any especially significant developments in this area over the last year – and what were they?

Most of the past efforts around interactive TV have been developed for cable set-top boxes. Showtime has been able to develop quite a few projects in this way, such as apps that allow viewers who don’t subscribe to Showtime to watch free sample episodes and order with the remote without having to pick up the phone. Despite the success with consumers, it has been nearly impossible for anyone doing work in interactive TV to get any significant scale with all of the different proprietary technologies used by the cable, satellite and telco operators. The apps for the set-top boxes had to be kept incredibly simple just to run on the platforms with very limited graphics, memory and processing power. It was even a challenge to architect a way to get the data back when the viewer clicks. There were some noble efforts – and some excellent concepts and ideas that viewers responded to, but it was all a bit too early.

What has changed is the emergence of consumer electronics in the living room. Stand-alone boxes like the Roku have a lot more computing power than the older set-tops, and the platform providers often encourage third party app development.  I’m particularly interested in Smart TVs because they are becoming ubiquitous. The typical US household replaces older TVs every 6-7 years. TVs are a mass-market product and not just for the early adopters, like may be the case with stand-alone boxes and HDMI sticks. The connection rate on Smart TVs is also way up in the past few years and the overall projections for connected Smart TVs is very promising.

One of the fascinating new developments with the newer Smart TVs that isn’t getting enough attention is the inclusion of ACR – or Automated Content Recognition. This means that the TVs can identify the video programming that is being viewed, accurate to within 1 or 2 seconds.   Prior to ACR, the TV was a dumb display with no way to recognize the video content on screen. With integrated ACR, the TV can detect it is viewing Ray Donovan, episode 3, and it’s exactly at ten minutes and 11 seconds into the show.

Almost all of the major TV manufacturers have been including this ACR capability built into the sets the past 2 to 3 years. The projections I’ve seen recently estimate there will be about 20 million connected, ACR-enabled TVs in the US by the end of this year.

Another benefit is that the content detections works regardless of the source, or whether it’s live or time shifted.   With the viewer’s consent, the sets can collect anonymous data, without any personal identifiable information, for accurate real-time viewer measurement and things like recommendations.

The part where this gets really interesting is the work we’ve come up with to use this integrated ACR capability to offer synchronized interactivity directly on the TV.  It’s now finally possible to create very rich interactive television experiences utilizing ACR enabled Smart TVs. Showtime is the first network in the US, and as far as we know, the first in the world to utilize the integrated ACR in the television chipset to provide synchronized on-screen interactivity for programming.

We have a free interactive offering called SHO Sync. SHO Sync allows viewers to click the remote to opt-in and interact directly with Showtime TV programming. There aren’t any apps to install and everything is cloud based. Unlike the proprietary interactive TV platforms of the past, it can all be developed in HTML.

With this integrated approach, it only takes one click for a viewer to engage with rich, immersive experiences that can be developed by TV programmers or advertisers to complement television. In our case, SHO Sync offers fans of our series the chance to make predictions, answer trivia and vote in polls, all while competing with other fans across the country.  SHO Sync is available for most of the Showtime prime time series including Homeland, Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex and Shameless. We have interactivity for well over 200 episodes.  We also have a fabulous second screen SHO Sync app for the iPad and iPhone, for viewers who prefer to interact on a device while watching on the TV.

I believe that once other networks and advertisers start to become aware of this new capability, we’ll start to see quite a bit of television programming and advertising begin to offer this additional layer of interactivity. If you think about it, after you select a program to watch, the television experience hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It currently remains one of the few mediums that haven’t been affected by technology and I believe it’s all about to change.

And what about new opportunities for monetization – how much potential is there in targeted advertising?

Well, just looking at the ACR enabled Smart TV example, what if all TV advertising could take on some of the innovative capabilities that we take for granted on the internet. The measurement will be incredibly accurate, ads can be targeted based on past TV viewing and demographics, and I think most importantly, it will become interactive so the viewer can take action and not just receive a passive impression. Interested in a product being advertised? Just click and you’ll receive a coupon or, in some cases, click to buy.  Sponsored interactivity in programming can also bring in some advertising dollars for things like click to vote on a reality program…brought to you by an advertiser.

And what monetization opportunities is Social opening up?

Let’s just look at social inclusion in other media. Can you think of a website or online marketing campaign without a Facebook and Twitter Like and Follow buttons? Why wouldn’t an advertiser want that capability on their television spots? TV has always had the reach, but there has never been the ability to connect with the audience beyond the one-way communication, and this opens up tremendous opportunities for monetization.

Given your experience, do you have some kind of blueprint for developing innovative content that effectively engages an audience?

I’m really fortunate to work at Showtime. With its subscription service business model and a culture of innovation, we’re able to operate with a good amount of flexibility and take some chances. Our initiatives typically start from the viewer’s perspective. We constantly ask ourselves, how can we make Showtime better and provide more value to our subscribers. Can we provide new enhancements or even simple features that will improve the TV experience for our viewers?  If we are successful, I believe we can attract new customers and keep our existing subscribers coming back for more – so in our case we don’t need to look for advertising dollars or new sources of revenue for this to make good business sense.

Do you think new forms of programming will emerge as a consequence of emergent technologies – do you have a sense of what these might look like?

I do. That’s when this will really get interesting. Initially, TV interactivity will be supplemental to the existing programming, such as click the remote to vote a contestant off the island or click to predict the next play in a football game.  As this starts to get in the hands of the program creators and writers we’ll start to the programming and advertising evolve to take full advantage of the new capabilities to tell a more immersive story and further engage the audience. These Smart TVs can also switch between video delivered traditionally and streams delivered over IP, all based on the viewer’s actions. The industry thinking needs to catch up with what is possible. One common example is the ability to let the viewer change camera angles, but the technical capabilities that now exist to manipulate the video and layer interactivity on top of it, provide a canvas for something much bigger and more interesting. The most exciting part for me is that the truly big ideas haven’t even been conceived of yet. It’s quite thrilling for me personally to be able to help contribute in a small way to the where this can go in the future.

David Preisman will be appearing at this year’s TVXperience (October 13-15 , Convene Center, New York), for booking and more info go here.

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