Dear iTV Doctor:
Interactive television just seems to be SO CLOSE now. Virtually every cable, satellite or telco company has something going on. There's a lot of energy, a lot of innovation and a lot of buzz. And the EBIF--oops, I meant SelecTV-- announcements are coming fast and furious. But in spite of all that, I've yet to see a real market-wide deployment, not to mention a deployment with a revenue model that works. When will we see something real?
Waiting in Waukegan
You might have missed a couple of recent announcements from the good people at OneLink in Puerto Rico (serving Metro San Juan ). They have about 140,000 subscribers in a Scientific-Atlanta/Cisco plant, with a healthy distribution of SA 2200 through SA 8300HD/HDM boxes. They've been using the EBIF user agent from FourthWall Media (FWM), and a collection of FWM's widgets and applications for well over a year. And OneLink just held their annual advertising "up-front" with interactive advertising enhancements available. And from what I hear, some of those apps are making money right now.
But to get the real answers, I reached out to OneLink CEO Ron Dorchester. Ron is a 2010 inductee into the Cable Pioneers--Ron and I joined American Television and Communications (ATC) at the same time. Here is a short piece on his background:
As a management trainee for American Television & Communications in 1973, Dorchester's cable career would include positions as general manager, regional VP, and president and founder of Anchor Pacific, an asset-management firm.
He was awarded the prestigious Vanguard Award for Young Leadership by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in 1987. He built the first cable TV system in metropolitan Hartford, Conn., and built out the first cable system in Orlando, Fla.
In addition, he built a microwave system throughout Florida to deliver the first HBO signals.
Here are Ron's comments:
iTV Doctor: Ron, first a little background: how did you come to be involved with cable in Puerto Rico?
Dorchester: Well, Rick, we joined with MidOcean Partners, a private equity firm, in late 2004 for the express purpose of acquiring cable television assets, and we looked at several opportunities together, including one in southern Puerto Rico, searching for just the right set of circumstances. As it turned out, even though we didn't acquire that one in Puerto Rico, we did come to believe that a great opportunity existed down there. Shortly thereafter, the San Juan metro system that was within the Adelphia management portfolio came onto the market. Earlier in 2005, Crestview Partners, a private equity firm also interested in cable television, and MidOcean agreed to a combined investment effort in this space and in November 2005 we were able to close the purchase of the San Juan metro cable system.
iTV Doctor: You deployed EBIF in 2009 as I understand. How did you come to make that decision?
Dorchester: Actually, we started formally developing this project in mid-2008. As I recall, prior to that I had a conversation with Dan Levinson [FourthWall/BIAP] at the top of an escalator at NCTA in 2007 wherein he previewed EBIF and then BIAP for me. I turned the concept over to Sandra Perry, our SVP of programming, and she worked with both the engineering and marketing folks in Puerto Rico and she came back enthused about the opportunity. After several internal organizational and creative meetings we decided that there was a unique proposition here. There were no real commercial deployment models at the time, so we treated it as a risk-capital investment and signed up with FourthWall/BIAP in 2008.Then we began rolling out the product[s] in 2009. It was a good decision.
iTV Doctor: Why did you choose to go forwards with FourthWall Media (then known as BIAP)? What role did their collection of applications and widgets (Yellow Pages, eBay and others) have in your decision?
Dorchester: When you're operating at the early stage of a unique opportunity and there are no existing scaled-up commercial deployments, it really comes down to the track record of the people involved, relationships, platforms, forward-looking consumer research and what one believes about the future. In this case, several of the executives at FourthWall were very well-known to us. We visited their facilities and did our due diligence. I was very confident of our people and platform in San Juan. We all felt that this area of the business would eventually be all about applications from an end-user standpoint, and of course we believed that Ad Widgets could be a big economic engine for us over time.
iTV Doctor: We have seen that most ad sales folks have trouble understanding and selling interactive advertising, but it looks like OneLink is making it work. How did that happen? What did you do that other operators can learn from?
Dorchester: There is no mystery here. It is in fact all about people. The technology part works great. It is always about execution and execution is all about people. Rick, I'm pretty sure you'll remember when Milt Lewis of the old Wometco Cable conceived of putting two pay-TV products in the same cable system and offering either or both to subscribers. Everybody, and I mean everybody, except Milt himself of course, thought he was crazy and that it would never work and could not be sold to anyone. It happened anyway in November 1978 in Thibodaux, Louisiana and today no one would even think of NOT having multiple screens of pay TV! Why? Because Milt got the right people in place to execute. (iTV Doctor’s note: I was on the team at Showtime that launched Showtime into those HBO markets. And Steve Saril, if you're still out there, I'm still waiting for that report on Thibodaux...)
It is still the same model, if you will, today with Ad Widgets. Someone in the operation must own it. In this case we have a product champion in Michelle Maranges who "owns" Ad Widgets. All the rest of us take on the job of supporting her requests for development resources. Beyond that, there isn't much that is new. Hire right, train right, compensate right, motivate right, make success everyone's priority and follow-up, follow-up, follow-up!
iTV Doctor: Of all the interactive apps, what has worked best? And why?
Dorchester: That is like asking which of 500 services is best? I like them all. End-users find the one or ones they like best and gravitate to those consumer applications. The point here, I think, is to open customer horizons and let them decide. At OneLink our slogan is "Tu Conexion Al Mundo" which is in English, "Your Connection to the World." We believe in that.
Ad Widgets is probably the most visible application right now in terms of the business community, and of course it offers the advertising community--agency and client--direct and often real-time accountability and the opportunity to test and measure the effectiveness of advertising and message, at both the creative and response level.
iTV Doctor: How have your subscribers responded? Does interactivity provide OneLink with a competitive advantage?
Dorchester: FourthWall tells us that OneLink has the leading commercial deployment and that is certainly the case in Puerto Rico. OneLink has a wonderfully robust platform and we are willing to stretch toward using all of its potential. There are many competitors in Puerto Rico and we try never to forget that fact. At the customer level OneLink wants to continue to manifest its brand attributes. Remember, "Tu Conexion Al Mundo," Rick.
Puerto Rico customers trend toward being very well-informed and knowledgeable regarding the media, devices, services and applications. They are quite "hip" and literate in these matters. Our management reporting tools indicate that they use the applications and understand the possibilities. Our market will be fertile ground for rolling out more and more of these types of services.
iTV Doctor: We've read that OneLink fired up interactive advertising demos at this year's up-front. What kind of reaction are you getting, and more importantly, what kind of sales activity are you budgeting?
Dorchester: Advertisers and agencies are excited about the expansion of tools we are now offering them to effectively reach consumers with actionable responses. In several individual situations they are even more excited about the testing and measurement features. The FourthWall "back-office" information technology creates terrific reporting tools for our clients. The more we educate the community the more positive reaction we see. Our folks in media sales have created a range of methods for our clients to avail themselves of both Ad Widgets and On-Demand Advertising. The key here is to offer customization, since this system is supremely "optionable" for its users. In the real world of budgets, OneLink looks forward to both enhanced activity and revenue growth. In the real world of advertising, OneLink looks forward to being the "go to" source for dollar-effectiveness in advertising.
iTV Doctor: OK, here's the zillion dollar question: What kind of LIFT are you expecting from going interactive? And how is that going to happen (Higher rates for interactive? Bigger ad buys? New advertisers?)
Dorchester: We've been service "interactive" since we got here five years ago, so this discussion is a lot more about enhancement and expansion than it is about discovery. OneLink has had net positive gains in our product lines throughout our operation of this business. That effect is because of the humans that work at OneLink every day and not because of a particular service or technology. Our customers have expectations of OneLink. FourthWall and our OneLink interactive media and business applications center are an important part of fulfilling those expectations and of OneLink leading from the front in Puerto Rico. We expect to grow across all our business lines in 2011. In this particular part of it, that will be attributable to satisfaction, effectiveness, responsiveness, and the fact that the people of OneLink show up and want our customers to be successful at whatever they need to do.
iTV Doctor: Last question: What's next for Ron Dorchester?
Dorchester: I've been unbelievably fortunate to be in this business since 1973--37 years--and I've never had to ask or answer that question.
The iTV Doctor is Rick Howe, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org