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A marriage of convenience

DirecTV hopes that combining two American loves -- television and football -- will lead to the blossoming of interactive services

Americans love their TVs, but do they really want to interact with them?

DirecTV is betting that football fans do. The satellite broadcaster is gearing up to launch a premium-priced interactive TV package with its Sunday Ticket subscription service next season that will allow fans to check scores, statistics, and fantasy team developments right on screen with their remote rather than logging on to NFL.com.

Eric Shanks, senior vice president for advanced services and content at DirecTV, said the NFL package is a small first step toward what he hopes will eventually be a full complement of interactive services. After years of false starts, he said, interactive television may be coming into its own.

"People have been fooling around with interactive TV for four to five years," he said. "Finally, this marriage of interactive TV and the NFL may be the thing that breaks the dam wide open."

The basic technology needed for a couch potato to pull up Tom Brady's passing stats, vote for an "American Idol" contestant, or buy a tool being used on "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" already exists. In most cases, all that would be needed is an upgrade in the set-top box provided by your cable or satellite TV service.

What's been missing is a viable business model for interactive television, a reason for satellite and cable broadcasters to sell and consumers to buy a technology that makes a TV act more like a computer and a remote more like a mouse.

"This is a game for the rich and maybe foolish," said Brigid Sullivan, vice president for children's, educational, and interactive programming and media access at WGBH, the Boston public broadcasting television station.

Using various grants, WGBH has experimented extensively with interactive TV over the last six years, gaining valuable insights into what works and what doesn't.

An interactive "Arthur" let children run the show in different languages, explore the meaning of words, and even use a video camera to insert themselves into the action and become part of the aardvark's circle of friends. An interactive "Antiques Roadshow" gave viewers the ability to use their remote to click on menu items, allowing them to learn more about the appraiser or guess the value of an item being evaluated.

Ron LaRussa, director of WGBH interactive, said the station's experiments have shown interactive television has tremendous educational potential. What's been lacking, he said, is a strong push for interactivity from cable and satellite broadcasters, the nation's primary TV gatekeepers.

"Our job is to be ready for whatever way the marketplace unfolds," he said. "The real X factor for deployment is that there is a new generation of consumers out there being raised in an environment where interactivity is so commonplace that they don't even notice it."

Christopher M. Perry, an attorney with Brendan J. Perry & Associates in Holliston, thinks advertisers, not couch potatoes, will ultimately propel interactive television to the forefront.

Perry and his associates represent a pair of inventors with a patent on software that basically would turn a TV screen into a computer monitor, allowing someone watching a performance by Britney Spears to click on her navel ring and be transported to a website where the ring could be purchased.

"It's putting the computer inside the home TV," Perry said. "It's purchase-order functionality. We think it's going to transform television."

Perry says he is negotiating with three major companies who are interested in acquiring the patent. He declined to identify the companies.

But many industry analysts doubt viewers want to chase the action on their screen with a remote or want their TV screen to morph into a website. WGBH officials say their tests have indicated viewers have a tough time assimilating all the information on a typical website from a couch 10 feet away.

Perhaps the most successful application of interactive television can be found on British Sky Broadcasting, a United Kingdom satellite broadcaster owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns DirecTV.

BSkyB has been offering interactive programming since 1999, allowing its subscribers to use their remotes to call up local news and weather, send e-mails, donate to charities, play games, select their own camera angles for soccer matches, vote, shop onscreen, and bet on everything from sports to casino games.

It's a dizzying array of interactive services, but gambling is far and away the biggest revenue producer. In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, BSkyB garnered 8.4 percent of its revenues, or $151.5 million, from interactive services. Of the total interactive revenues, 73 percent, or $110 million, came from betting and the rest from retail sales and other services.

At DirecTV, Shanks doesn't have gambling to help finance interactive services, so he plans to test what his company's subscribers are interested in and willing to pay for.

"Do people really want to watch 'CSI' and interact with it?" he asked. "Common sense will tell you that certain types of content would be more interactive than others."

Chief among them are news, weather, and sports, and Shanks is focusing initially on sports. DirecTV's Sunday Ticket, a supplement to the satellite broadcaster's other tiered channel packages that offers coverage of most NFL games, costs $239 this season. Pricing for next season hasn't been set yet, nor has the charge for the new package of services.

Shanks says the package will probably include several new channels giving the viewer the ability to keep track of more games and game developments simultaneously. It will also feature an interactive service making it possible to bring the scores and statistics available on NFL.com directly to the viewer's TV screen.

"More and more football fans are watching TV and on the Web at the same time," said Chris Russo, who oversees NFL.com, which gets 4 million to 5 million visitors each Sunday. "There's a strong appetite for fans to get information as a complement to the broadcast."

Shanks said in the future DirecTV may offer Sunday Ticket subscribers the ability to select camera angles or play virtual coach on the sidelines. Shanks said video game overlays could allow viewers to select offenses and defenses and see how effective they are in real-game situations.

"That's pretty far down the road," he said. "But the important thing is we're not going to be in test mode like a lot of people have been the last five years. We're taking the most valuable sports franchise there is and making it interactive. If you can't make it work with the NFL, I don't know what else will work."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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