DTV to allow two-way broadcasts.

Also: How HDTV Works (link)

(ZMag) The Interactive Commercial, Coming Soon to a TV Near You: A teenager is sprawled in front of a television set, remote control in hand. Her show has just been interrupted, for the third time in a half-hour, with an ad for Prada women's wear. This is hardly a surprise, Prada is her favorite brand-name and somebody out there certainly knows it.

Along with the ad spots, the set of her program has been digitally remastered to include items like shopping bags in the background featuring the names of stores which carry the Prada line, and Prada logos plastered across T-shirts worn by some of the cast members (the teenage boy next door is watching the same program, but he is seeing ads for Tommy Hilfiger and Sony products instead).

Our fictional teenager is immune to the siren call of Italian fashion on this particular afternoon, but that might not stop her from noticing that one of the actors is wearing a pair of Nike sneakers she really likes. Using the remote like a mouse, she clicks on the sneakers' image causing the Nike website to pop up. Just one more click and the item is purchased since a shared advertiser database has already stored most of the necessary information, such as her size, favorite colors, and credit card number. Best of all, though, there is no need for her to stop watching TV while she shops. Her program continues to play in a window in the corner of the screen throughout the entire transaction. Once her attention returns to it she may or may not notice that some of the original ads have been replaced by new ones.

This might sound like an episode of the Jetsons (one with heavy underwriting by the Master Card corporation), but, in fact, it's a very common scenario used by computer, advertising, and entertainment industry gurus to explain the applications of digital television technology--technology that already exists and may be commonplace in most living rooms within the next few years.

Television is currently in the middle of a wide-scale change. For the last 50 years TV networks have broadcast signals in essentially the same way, via electromagnetic waves. This system is known as analog broadcasting. Within the past few years, however, stations have begun a slow transition to broadcasting in a different kind of signal; a signal transmitted in the language of computers. This system, known as digital broadcasting, represents a technological improvement over analog television in several ways. Digital television (DTV) pictures can be sharper and more vibrant, for starters. This facet of DTV is commonly known as high-definition television (HDTV) and is the part of the changeover to digital that has so far garnered the most press attention. DTV can do more than deliver nicer pictures, however. It represents the logical marriage of TV and Internet technology and essentially portends television that can do the same things a computer can.

For starters, instead of a fixed signal that travels just one way, from the broadcaster to the viewer, the digital format allows for the transmission of a two-way signal. This means that DTV shows can be interactive. Thus, we may soon start to see TV programs which allow viewers to pause, rewind or fast-forward action, surf between television and the Internet (although the differences between those two mediums will probably begin to be less and less relevant), or click on hyperlinks “embedded” in each show to download related information, or buy product tie-ins. Although only a small subset of the population currently has the ability to get DTV (it can only be viewed with a special kind of television or with a set-top decoder that makes a regular television DTV compatible), TV stations in the country's largest viewing markets have already begun transmitting pilot digital broadcasts.

PBS, for instance, has produced a documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright that prompts the viewer to choose from a list of buildings designed by the architect, and then gives her a virtual "tour" of that property. The creators of “Baywatch” have offered somewhat less educational fare with an episode embedded with links that enable viewers to surf to a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos of the show's actors, browse through Mitch (David Hasselhoff) and Neely's (Gena Lee Nolin) “wedding album,” or, perhaps most importantly, order “Baywatch” merchandise by entering credit card information.

Because DTV could also offer viewers the option of fast forwarding through commercials entirely, a lot of advertisers have expressed concern that the new TV's will make the traditional 30-second ad spot obsolete; a fear that industry experts have hastened to allay. More likely, says Karen J. Bannan of the online publication ZDnet, is that advertisers will no longer be "limited" to "static ads that are broadcast every seven minutes, but will be able to market their wares constantly." Most of the models for DTV advertising have been borrowed from the Internet. These may take the form of web's ubiquitous banner ads or the virtual “insertion” of products and corporate logos into the sets of the shows themselves. They may also show up as something that some manufacturers have already begun to express excitement about interactive "infomercials." These would be ads that provide not just a pitch, according to executives, but an "engaging activity" as well.

"We could have a Crisco Oil commercial where we give viewers the opportunity to download light cooking recipes--that use Crisco Oil, of course" says Jim Gosney, Procter & Gamble's associate director of commercial production. "Or imagine a Tide spot which could afford viewers the ability to download a chart that shows how to get out tough stains, with Tide among the techniques." Other suggestions for ways to take advantage of the interactive potential of DTV ads abound. These may include car advertisements which prompt the viewer to enter her favorite model and color of car and then follow up with an ad featuring that vehicle, or pitches for cereal which offer children the chance to take "quizzes" on good nutrition, or fill out crossword puzzles using product-related words.

What the advertising industry is anticipating even more than the possibility of constant, interactive advertising, however, is DTV's potential to allow broadcasters to do something that is already very common on the web; that is to monitor the viewing and purchasing habits of individual users. While TV ads currently target broad groups of viewers, such as "6 to 10-year-olds" or "college-age white males," depending on who tends to watch any given show, technology similar to the Internet's "cookies" will make it possible for TV advertisers to track the viewing behavior of each subscribing household, and thus send them all different messages. As Steve Adams, chair and COO of the company that owns SkyConnect Incorporated, a digital ad insertion provider, notes "The standard way to advertise is to carpet bomb everyone with ads and hopefully you'll get some return. With one-to-one advertising, companies get a much better return, because they already know that the customer they are selling to is interested." This means that viewers who tend to watch cooking shows may find themselves constantly seeing ads for kitchen utensils, families with kids will get more commercials for minivans and Disneyland vacations, and the child who never misses “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” could continuously be targeted by ads for Power Rangers products all throughout the Saturday morning viewing hours.

While all of this may make manufacturers and advertising executives very happy, it's raised eyebrows among civil liberties advocates and parent's groups. This is because interactive personalized commercials represent both a potential threat to viewer privacy, and an advertising medium which is profoundly more manipulative than anything we're used to currently.

At best this might mean that you run the risk of having to explain why that particular commercial starring Bob Dole is visiting your set quite as often as it is or why you seem to be targeted for an unusual number of TV ads concerning adults-only entertainment venues…but at worst? Who knows? How many of us feel comfortable contemplating the fact that information about which programs we watch will soon be feeding into the same corporate databases that already track our magazine and newspaper subscriptions, credit histories, Internet purchases, and what groceries we buy? Moreover, in a society whose credit balances and bankruptcy rates are skyrocketing, how many of us feel that we need more frequent and more effective television commercials? Who among us, after all, would not be swayed by a television set that knows exactly who we are, what we like, and when we'll be watching…and that makes our next purchase as easy as the press of a button?

Since the interactive capabilities of DTV are so new, and have received relatively little media attention, few lawmakers have really begun to think about the types of measures needed to give DTV viewers some measure of privacy and protection in the face of this new medium. One organization, People for Better TV, a coalition of civil rights and public interest groups concerned about the switch to digital broadcasting has, however, persuaded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to hold hearings on the public interest obligations of digital broadcasters. The group has also issued a list of recommendations for lawmakers including establishing controls on what types of information broadcasters should be able to gather about viewers and limiting the number of advertisements (targeted or otherwise) that may air during children's programming. "The good news," says Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America and PBTV coalition member, "is that the FCC is now starting to look into the profound effect that digital television will have on consumers. The bad news is that the horse is already out of the barn--digital television is already broadcasting in most major television markets. The FCC must move quickly to issue guidelines on important consumer concerns, like privacy protection and overly aggressive advertising."

Jessica Brown is Assistant Director of the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, 818 18th St, NW, #505, Washington DC 20006; 202-887-0301; Fax: 202-887-0305; (source)