Hollywood’s Elite Compete for the Next Big Interactive TV Deal at NATPE 2000

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 24, 2000 — Playing along while watching a game show. Responding to a poll while viewing a local news show. Ordering a pizza while watching a pizza commercial. While interactive television promises innovative ways to interact with our television sets, the real possibilities are just starting to emerge.

In an effort to spark creative ideas for interactive television programs — and push those ideas closer toward reality — Microsoft is holding its first “Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch” event. The event, which starts today at the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) 2000 conference, will give 100 people the opportunity to pitch their interactive TV program ideas to a panel of Hollywood insiders for the chance to win awards and turn their ideas into the next big television deal.

“The purpose of this interactive TV pitch is to reach out to the television development community and say, ‘We should be coming up with great new programs that no one’s ever done before,'” says Marty Behrens, group manager in the Microsoft TV Platforms Group. “This will help us break out of the box so that consumers can see the fun and compelling nature of interactive television.”

The Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event is an outgrowth of NATPE’s “NATPE at Nite: Pitch Me!” session, started four years ago by the nonprofit alliance of media content professionals to allow TV hopefuls to pitch traditional TV ideas to a panel of industry decision-makers. One of the most anticipated events at NATPE, the Pitch Me! contest now attracts audiences of more than 1,000 people, according to Beth Braen, NATPE’s vice president for creative cervices.

“We are delighted we’re going to be the host of the Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event,” Braen says. “An interactive TV pitch is just the kind of session that promotes more fresh, creative ideas and content. And NATPE is about content, so of course we liked the idea.” The spark for the Interactive Pitch event came from Paul Mitchell, Microsoft’s senior group manager for Microsoft TV, who suggested the idea to Behrens in a hallway conversation. Behrens proposed the idea to Braen, who immediately liked it. ‘This is the year where convergence is really happening and where people can really start to see examples of it,” she says. “And what better way to develop this opportunity than by working with Microsoft on an interactive TV pitch session?”

The first 100 NATPE attendees who sign up for the contest will have 60 seconds to pitch their interactive TV programming idea to a panel of judges. The judges will select 30 finalists based on criteria such as the use of interactivity, the feasibility of the idea and the delivery of the pitch itself. They will then narrow down the finalists to two winners and two runners-up on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This is about your ability to stand up in front of your industry peers and capture their imaginations directly with your pitch,” Behrens says. “Let’s face it: this is Hollywood, so if our ideas are going to be embraced and turned into a television program, it takes a certain kind of ability to sell them.”

The 13 panel judges represent a cross-section of the television, Web production and broadband industries, Behrens says. “TV is the main thrust, but we also wanted to make sure that people with good, strong technology and Web skills were also represented, because we’re also trying to assess the feasibility of these ideas,” he says.

Participants who are not among the first 100 in the audition line will have the opportunity to submit their pitches in writing. The judges may select a third runner-up, depending on the quality of these proposals, Behrens says. The event will be streamed live by NATPE’s official webcaster, INTERVU, from the show floor on Tuesday and Wednesday at http://www.natpe.org/, offering consumers a chance to vote — courtesy of NATPE’s new media partner E-Poll.com — for their favorite interactive TV ideas on the Web site and compare their choices to those of the judges.

The two winners will receive the official Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch award. “The bragging rights of winning at NATPE are going to open lots of doors, and that’s really the big win,” Behrens says.

The judges and Microsoft will also assist the winners in exploring development opportunities by attempting to set up meetings for them with television companies. Behrens emphasizes that they cannot guarantee the winners’ pitches will be turned into actual TV programs. Nevertheless, the assistance could help to open some doors.

“Mainly, it’s going to be the judges and the folks at Microsoft picking up the phone and calling their contacts to say ‘we heard a great idea at NATPE,'” Behrens says. “That may not sound like a lot to some people. But in the entertainment business, to get someone to pick up the phone and tell a well-known agent or studio executive that they should take a meeting with you is worth a lot.”

Behrens sees the Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event as a logical outgrowth of Microsoft’s participation in the television arena. The company is developing the Microsoft TV Platform that incorporates client software that will run on TV set-top boxes as well as server software that will allow network operators to provide their own enhanced TV services. Microsoft also offers the WebTV service, the world’s leading enhanced TV service with more than 1 million subscribers. The service, owned by Microsoft subsidiary WebTV Networks, offers subscribers the opportunity to watch more than 350 hours of interactive television per week, browse the Internet from their TV, and even digitally record and pause live TV programming. Microsoft is also working with the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) to develop open standards so that any interactive TV program can be viewed from any television set-top box.

“We think we have an important role to play, and that is to help provide the tools, standards, leadership, and evangelism around content creation so that the creative community has a palette they can use,” Behrens says. “An event like this becomes a small watershed that focuses everybody on the fact that we need to develop creative interactive TV programs. It’s the creative and compelling experiences that are going to make people happy that they’ve got interactive TV.”

The interactive television market is already taking off, Behrens says. Indeed, Forrester Research predicts that interactive television will generate $11 billion in advertising, $7 billion in commerce and $2 billion in subscription revenues by 2004. “There’s no doubt that in two years we’re going to see widespread penetration of interactive TV to the tune of millions and millions of subscribers,” Behrens says. “And five years from now, this will be a foregone conclusion.”

Already, the contest has been drawing interest from show runners, executive producers, and others with creative ideas, say Behrens and Braen. “We’re going to make history by doing this,” Braen says. “This will really help to define and develop what interactive TV is going to be. I hope this will be the start of something that Microsoft and NATPE develop and grow year after year.”

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