- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2000

The Internet community has debated on-line privacy issues since the dawn of cyberspace. Today, those issues are moving to cable television as the promise of interactive television (ITV) and digital reception becomes a reality.

In Montgomery County alone, more than 220,000 homes serviced by Comcast Corp., formerly Cable Television Montgomery, are being upgraded with the promise of better broadcast viewing through fiber optics.

In homes, the cable box will be replaced by a digital decompression receiver that will de-scramble digital transmissions, Boolean signals made up of ones and zeros, restoring them to a video and audio signal that can be displayed on a set.

With digital cable, the Internet is poised to jump from the desktop to the coffee table.

Digital television, the first step toward interactive television, will allow viewers to receive 10 times the number of channels into their homes. Interactive television offers digital cable subscribers access to the Internet, using keyboards in much the same manner as from the computer desktop.

"What we have is the natural evolution of technology moving from the dumb box that is television to an interactive medium that allows the TV watcher to get additional data or even make purchases from the living room," said Ben Isaacson, executive director of the Association for Interactive Media (AIM) (www.interactivehq.com) located in the District.

"There are a number of companies from multiple industries that are working with cable and satellite programmers to bring the Internet and Internet commerce to the television screen."

While television watchers may welcome the addition of multiple television channels and may even appreciate being able to demand additional information regarding a subject being viewed, a question arises as to whether individuals understand that their television set can now provide advertisers unique information.

"We do not want consumers to think of their broadcast providers as a 'Big Brother' type of entity," Mr. Isaacson said. "Our job, and the role of trade associations, is to ensure that the consumer is protected, including the promotion of consumer education campaigns that teach about the opportunities digital cable and interactive media will bring."

One group watching over the companies that are watching over the evolution of the television screen is the Addressable Media Coalition (AMC). The AMC has been created by the Association for Interactive Media to provide a forum for industry within the ITV space.

Founding AMC members include industry leaders such as ACTV, AllADVantage.com, BBDO, Global Gate ECommerce, GTE and TN Media.

This group works with cable, digital broadcast services, television providers and the marketing and advertising communities in developing and implementing the ability to conduct one-to-one marketing, from business to consumer, through digital television.

"The digitization of the broadcast media business will allow for more accuracy in delivering targeted messages to a specific consumer," said Art Cohen, chairman of AMC and senior vice president, advertising and commerce, ACTV, Inc.

"It becomes a vehicle that allows an electronic data interchange in that we can capture data as to what a specific household is watching and then send targeted advertisements in keeping with that data."

The difference to advertisers comes down to being able to know who is watching what broadcasts and commercials. The existing system relies on Nielsen reports to provide a best-guess estimation of demographic viewership based on random poles of small samples of the national television audience.

With interactive TV, the broadcasting company, with the assistance of the cable operator, will be able to pinpoint which homes are watching what shows and when.

Using additional information provided by the viewer when signing up for services, those broadcasters will now be able to determine household ages, gender, incomes and specific viewing preferences and then tailor an advertising message to meet that group's interests.

"The viewing experience will not change for the consumer in that advertisements will still be inserted into shows with the exception that those advertisements should be of more interest to the individual," Mr. Cohen said.

"The big change will be for the advertiser who will be able to not only send out better articulated advertisements, but who will also be able to receive authentication of delivery, knowing that their ad ran in a specific household demographic."

Of course the Big Brother implications will continue to simmer as the technology becomes more refined but of more concern will be how many more beer commercials will the single, 18-to-35-year-old, male demographic be able to digest.

• Have an interesting site? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at the Business Browser, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail to joseph@twtmail.com.

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