NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As cable and satellite-TV distributors wrestle over which will be first to deliver nationally scalable interactive-TV opportunities to advertisers, one cable network, ESPN, has already taken matters into its own hands by developing its own interactive-TV products.
Beginning in summer 2009, the Walt Disney Co. sports-entertainment network will offer three new iTV products, tentatively titled ESPN My Vote, ESPN In Game Extra and My Bottom Line. Specific cable-distribution partners have yet to be determined, but ESPN My Vote and ESPN In Game Extra will each employ EBIF middleware technology, already available in millions of set-top boxes nationwide, while My Bottom Line will use Tru2way technology, the cross-cable software that powers cable operators' interactive programming guides, games and other programs.
Sean Bratches, ESPN's exec VP-sales and marketing, said the products mark the first time ESPN has been able to offer a national interactive-TV solution to advertisers, having tested out single-market/single-affiliate iTV campaigns in the last four to five years. Although specifics of the ad model are still being determined, each interactive product will offer advertisers logo placement and access to product microsites.
"The marketplace, from a directional standpoint, is somewhat conversant in the iTV proposition. It understands the value. Now we're looking for national ubiquity," Mr. Bratches said.
ESPN My Vote is an interactive feature that will enable viewers to participate in voting and polling during live broadcasts of "SportsCenter," "College Football Live," College Football telecast, Major League Baseball telecasts and "Baseball Tonight."
ESPN In Game Extra will give viewers the option to access additional game stats during live telecasts, including player tracking, scores, standings and schedules.
My Bottom Line refers to the bottom line, or news scroll across the bottom of the TV screen, which fans will be able to customize to their favorite teams or cities, regardless of geography. So a Cleveland sports fan in New York could customize scores for the Cavs and the Browns, with live access to stats, standings, research and even information about fantasy players.
"From a fan's perspective, these applications are really in the cross hairs of the sports fans' DNA," Mr. Bratches said. "They're leaders from a technology-adoption standpoint, and very accustomed to having more information and more analysis. This is a really nice marriage between a platform for advertisers to invest and sports fans to engage in."
ESPN is one of several TV networks seeking to put an aggressive stake in the rapidly-evolving realm of interactive TV. NBC partnered with EchoStar's Dish Network earlier this year for a test round of interactive ads across its footprint of 14 broadcast and cable networks and 10 owned-and-operated local broadcast stations. Viacom's MTV Networks also recently brokered an innovative iTV deal at the network level with Dish for Cadbury-Adams' Sour Patch Kids, which aired this summer during The N's "Queen Bees."
Interactive TV also gained its biggest champion this year in the form of former Aegis Media chief David Verklin, the new CEO of cable consortium Project Canoe, which will begin rolling out its first national product to advertisers in first-quarter 2009 across six cable operators, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable.
Mr. Bratches said ESPN's investment in its own distribution-neutral iTV products is "really a function of the marketplace. No one entity controls the distribution even within the cable community. There are cable operators that are part of Canoe, and there are cable operators that are not part of Canoe. There's also the telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon, and Dish and DirecTV. From a content standpoint, while we certainly have had numerous productive discussions with our friends at Canoe, the marketplace is larger than their current proposition is today."