TV and the Web: Can Backchannelmedia Make You Lean Forward?

4/23/08Follow @wroush

Back in November, we covered a Boston company called Backchannelmedia that’s giving broadcasters and advertisers a new marketing channel by adding a Web bookmarking function to TV programming. I stopped by Backchannelmedia’s office for a demo of the latest version of its system a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll be sharing a few of my thoughts about the whole experiment as part of a panel discussion tonight on WGBH’s Greater Boston with Emily Rooney (7:00 pm and 12:00 am on channel 2).

[Update April 24, 2008: The "panel" on Greater Boston last night turned out to be just me. Emily asked some great questions. The video is up on WGBH's website for the next two weeks.]

Unless you’re watching carefully, you may not be aware how many times every day TV broadcasters flash Web URLs at you on the screen during their regular programming (not to mention during commercials, many of which also contain Web addresses). It’s a lot. And given how much effort many newsrooms and production studios are putting into their websites these days (think CNN.com or Battlestar Galactica‘s “webisodes” on the Sci-Fi channel site), it’s obvious why broadcasters would want to try to drive TV viewers to the Web. The problem is that most URLs are hard to remember, and few viewers have a pad and pencil or an open laptop handy to copy them down.

Backchannelmedia has come up with a fix for that. Behind the company’s system, of course, there’s a lot of complicated software involving broadcast servers, Web servers, and your cable set-top box. But on the surface, it’s very simple—as it needs to be, if broadcasters are to have any chance of coaxing millions of viewers to use it. Basically, broadcasters insert a code into their programs that causes a special icon to appear on your TV screen alongside a URL or any other “call to action.” If you click OK on your TV remote while the icon is showing, Backchannelmedia will send you the link electronically for later reference. You can view all of your saved links at Backchannelmedia’s portal site, or you can have them e-mailed to you.

I gave the system a try during a visit to Backchannelmedia’s media room, where the company has a Windows PC desktop running on one big screen and a TV signal (being transmitted by the company’s in-house TV server) showing on another. During a recording of Grey’s Anatomy, an icon popped up offering background information about the cast. I clicked the TV remote’s OK button, and within 15 seconds or so, a link to the Grey’s Anatomy website showed up in my Backchannelmedia inbox.

Testing Backchannelmedia’s system at the WCVB studios in BostonThe company is working with local cable providers and TV stations to set up a test of the system using live broadcasts in 100 homes in the Boston area, expanding to 10,000 homes by the end of the year. And it’s collaborating with Boston station WCVB to test an over-the-air version of the system. (It’s easier to implement the bookmarking function over cable systems, which have a built-in “return path” that tells the system when viewers are clicking their remotes. But for over-the-air broadcasts Backchannelmedia has come up with an alternative system that connects TVs and set-top boxes to the Internet via home wireless networks.)

The possibilities for TV bookmarking are pretty broad—it’s easy to imagine shopping networks providing links to specific items in Web-based catalogs, for example. The real question is whether broadcasters using such technologies can train TV viewers to engage more actively with what they’re watching. TV has been famously described as a “lean back” medium, in contrast to the “lean forward” nature of the Internet. In other words, many TV watchers are couch potatoes, and seem to like it that way, as the failure of quite a few interactive TV projects over the past three decades has demonstrated.

But Backchannelmedia has mustered extensive statistics arguing that people’s TV viewing habits are already becoming more interactive: for example, more viewers have the remote in their hands all the time, often so that they can skip forward over commercials during shows they’ve recorded on their DVRs. (Because it’s based on codes embedded in TV signals, rather than on the exact time an icon was broadcast, Backchannelmedia’s bookmarking system works even for recorded shows.) In a poll of more than 2,000 TV viewers conducted for Backchannelmedia by the Parthenon Group, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they “never” or “infrequently” visit website URLs shown during TV ads—but the same number said they would click on an icon using their remote if it meant that they’d get a discount coupon via e-mail.

Will it work in the real world? My guess is that the success or failure of Backchannelmedia’s system will pivot largely on the quality of the content that broadcasters choose to provide in response to viewers’ clicks. Bookmarking is a natural activity online—and there’s a growing collection of tools to make it easier. Speaking for myself, I can imagine transferring that same habit to my TV viewing—but only if the content I was bookmarking turned out to be genuinely useful, and not simply a new form of spam.

As with all media, I’m sure some TV producers will take the high road, while others take the low; just imagine all the rich online resources that could be embedded in a program like WGBH’s Nova, and the equally amazing collection of celebrity-gossip trash that you’d likely get from the producers of E! In short, TV and the Web seem like a natural marriage—but I’m not sure how the kids are going to turn out.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • George W. Smith

    Being very familiar with the Backchannelmedia “model”, I must commend you on your accurate and easy to understand explanation. If Backchannelmedia fails (which it should not) then someone else will succeed as this is truly the wave of the future.

    As you point out, we viewers all sit with our “gun” in hand ready to click. This will be as simple as changing the channel or raising the sound.

  • Steve Dodge

    I have been hearing about this company and their new technology for close to 8 years. It is about time they launch a trial. They have been so slow getting their act together, I am afraid a largr software firm will be able to improve on their concept and beat them to the punch.

    I also think the concept is to intrusive to ever reach critical mass.

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