Banking on Interactivity

Times Staff Writer

Sunday's Super Bowl on ABC is likely to reach about 40 million U.S. homes, the largest audience for any broadcast this year. But Rick Mandler, who runs ABC's interactive TV efforts, is focused on a different milestone.

His team expects to deliver an enhanced version of the game to more than half a million computer screens -- the largest audience ever for an interactive TV program.

The enhanced program has another distinction that's even more important to Walt Disney Co.'s ABC. Unlike many previous efforts, this one actually attracted an advertiser.

At least it's a start. Advertisers' dismissive attitude about interactive TV -- a new breed of programming that invites viewers to play along with or respond to the action on the screen -- almost led ABC to pull the plug on Mandler's team a year and a half ago. Although major advertisers are starting to sponsor enhanced-TV programs, Mandler said he still has to prove to ABC that it's not wasting money.

"We have been from the beginning a cutting-edge effort, and whenever you're out on the edge of something, there's a risk you're going to fall off," he said. "I don't feel any more or less pressure now to succeed than we ever had. I've always felt a lot of pressure for us to succeed."

The situation at ABC mirrors the uncertain prospects of the interactive TV industry. Perpetually on the verge of revolutionizing television, interactive companies have yet to prove that the masses want anything more from their televisions than they're already getting. They're also saddled with fragmented technology, slow-moving cable operators and audiences too small to matter to most advertisers.

Nevertheless, there are signs that the industry is making headway.

The number of programs broadcast with interactive features -- such as polls, trivia questions and games -- jumped 300% in 2002. What's more, up to 90% of those shows are attracting at least one sponsor for their interactive elements, said Scott Newnam, chief executive of GoldPocket Interactive Inc., a Los Angeles-based supplier of interactive TV technology.

About 4,500 hours of interactive programming were broadcast last year, compared with 1,000 hours in 2001, Newnam said. The increase was driven partly by cable channels such as Sony Corp.'s Game Show Network, which has been adding interactivity to most of its lineup.

For advertisers, "it's not as much a test these days as a component to a bigger marketing effort," said Tim Hanlon, a vice president at Starcom MediaVest Group, a Chicago advertising agency. "It's a realization that the medium of television is changing, that's all it is, and realizing that they need to change along with it."

On Sunday, while more than 300 ABC employees at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego and network headquarters in New York bring the Super Bowl to viewers around the world, Mandler and six of his minions will be sequestered in a darkened room on New York's Upper West Side, churning out a steady stream of poll questions, player statistics, trivia questions and charts related to the action on the field.

These enhancements flow to a special Web site that's synchronized with the Super Bowl broadcast. The Web site also will stage a fantasy football contest, letting viewers pick as many as six players from the two teams and earn points based on their players' performance.

The network's goal is to convince football fans to watch their TVs and their computers at the same time. This two-screen approach may seem awkward, but it overcomes one of the biggest problems facing interactive television: the lack of a standard technology in TVs or set-top boxes to tune in the interactive layer of text and graphics.

The enhanced-TV site also will offer a stream of playful promotions from Hanes, the apparel-making unit of Sara Lee Corp. The promotions, which tout Hanes' "tagless" T-shirts, echo the commercials Hanes is running during the game, and get consumers to take a more active role in the advertising.

"We want to reach as many people as we possibly can," said Jake Van Wyk, director of marketing for Hanes' underwear group. "And the numbers that enhanced TV is reaching are pretty impressive."

The ability to reinforce a commercial's message through interactive TV is increasingly appealing to advertisers, particularly with a growing number of viewers using digital video recorders and other new technologies to skip commercials entirely. So, too, is the ability to get immediate feedback from viewers through the Internet.

Still, advertisers' interest has waxed and waned, as ABC saw with the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." In the early, high-ratings days, ABC had no trouble finding sponsors for the enhanced version of the game. But "in the waning days of 'Millionaire,' we were getting nothing," Mandler said.

The vanishing ad dollars throughout the business had prompted ABC's parent, Walt Disney Co., to reevaluate all of its interactive efforts, both on TV and on the Web. The company decided to keep Mandler's group going through September 2002, he said, but it had to cut costs and stop losing money.

As it happened, the group didn't break even. But things had improved enough for ABC to give Mandler and his team of 11 -- down from 20 during the heyday of "Millionaire" -- a new lease on life.

Steve Wadsworth, president of Walt Disney Internet Group, said the enhanced-TV efforts are strategically important because they give ABC something unique to offer viewers and advertisers. And although interest among advertisers isn't widespread, "when it comes in, it's fairly strong," he said, adding that the company was "surprised by the kind of revenue we've been able to get out of it."

The group's rebound started when Mazda Motor Corp. agreed to sponsor the full season of enhanced Sunday Night Football on ESPN, the cable-TV sports network also owned by Disney. Then Ford Motor Co. sponsored a series of interactive college football bowl games; Coca-Cola Co. sponsored the interactive elements of the American Music Awards; Mazda and Hewlett-Packard Co. sponsored enhanced pro football playoff games; and Hanes agreed to sponsor the enhanced-TV Super Bowl.

For Mandler, the goal is to offer advertisers a two-way pipeline to viewers, convincing them to shift some of the $200 billion they spend each year on direct marketing to TV. Even a small percentage of $200 billion is real money, Mandler said, adding, "That's why we're in this business."

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