ESPN App Advances Long-Delayed Interactive TV Push

Cable Technology Still Lagging, but Web-Enabled TVs Open a New Route

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NEW YORK ( -- Two years ago, ESPN announced plans to roll out a suite of interactive TV applications using EBIF, a nascent technology that was going to make clickable TV apps possible for the first time. Two years later, EBIF still hasn't gotten off the ground.

But TVs that come with internet capabilities are offering a new way in: ESPN introduced ScoreCenter, an app for web-enabled Samsung TVs, to Samsung's app store on Thursday.

The TV version of ScoreCenter -- it shares the name of ESPN's popular app for the iPhone and the iPad -- lets viewers check scores and stats, customized to feature their favorite teams and leagues. The app can scroll across the top, bottom or side of the screen and may eventually be opened to advertisers for custom sponsorships.

Although ESPN is talking to other TV manufacturers about adding ScoreCenter to their web-enabled TVs, the network hasn't completely scrapped its original plans for TV apps that don't rely on set makers. They will require extensive technology bandwidth and cooperation from multiple TV operators to provide scale for potential sponsors, but could reach consumers who don't have internet-connected TVs.

"We're focused on serving the fan, and to the extent that there is a smart deal to do with the participants in the interactive television food chain we would be willing to do that," said Sean Bratches, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing.

For the moment, though, apps for web-enabled TVs offer the clear advantage, according to Mr. Bratches. "At this stage it kind of affords us more bandwidth to develop and create experiences that are appropriate for our brand and consistent with what the consumer is seeing on television," he said.

ESPN's ITV woes until now stemmed mostly from the delay in getting EBIF up and running nationwide. Cable consortium Canoe Ventures, led by former Aegis CEO David Verklin, was expected to lead the charge of advanced TV but ran into some major hurtles in getting the technology up to par. ESPN had planned to introduce its i-TV apps by the summer of 2009, but that fall advanced TV was still in the "pipe-cleaning phase," Mr. Verklin told Ad Age last year.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer recently discussed the hazards of being tech-forward at Ad Age's Media Evolved conference in New York, noting that innovations can't always be monetized right away. At the same time, however, ESPN views technology as a source of growth.

"We look at technology as a friend, not a foe," Mr. Bodenheimer told Ad Age editor Abbey Klaassen. "Even though it can interrupt your models, my boss [Disney CEO] Bob Iger is embracing all these models and it has good potential for sports fans."

TV-based apps will be one of the big trends at next month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and already there's an arms race for leadership in the space. Samsung, which introduced the first TV app store earlier this year and now offers 200 apps, recently passed the 1-million download mark. Apple TV, Google TV and Microsoft's Kinect are also quickly becoming major players, as are TV manufacturers like Sony and Vizio.

ESPN will keep using the ScoreCenter name as it reaches deals to put it on other web-connected TVs. "One thing that's really important to us about ScoreCenter is we are trying to launch apps in the marketplace with a singular brand," Mr. Bratches said. "Having myriad brands complicates the marketing message particularly in nascent mediums. ScoreCenter, you can see it on Android devices, iPhones, iPads and tablets on television."

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