Contestants Compete for the Next Big Interactive TV Deal at NATPE 2000

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 27, 2000 — Last week, Toronto television producer Jonathan Block-Verk saw an advertisement on the NATPE Web site for the first
“Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch.”
This week, he’s on his way to turning his idea into an actual television show.

Block-Verk was among 100 people at the Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event who had the opportunity to pitch their interactive TV program ideas to a panel of Hollywood insiders for the chance to win awards and possibly have their interactive TV pitch ideas turned into the next big television deal. One of two winners of the event, Block-Verk is already talking to television industry leaders interested in learning more about his idea.

“I truly didn’t know if I would win, but I was just really excited to pitch my idea,”
Block-Verk said.
“I love the technology and I like where TV is going.”

In an effort to spark creative ideas for interactive television programs — and push those ideas closer toward reality — Microsoft held its first Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event at the National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) 2000 conference this week.

The 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 to host the Microsoft TV Interactive Pitch event,”
Braen said.

An interactive TV pitch is just the kind of session that promotes fresh, creative ideas and content. And NATPE is about content, so of course we were excited about this opportunity.”

The spark for the Interactive Pitch event came from Paul Mitchell, Microsoft’s senior group manager for Microsoft TV, who suggested the idea to Marty Behrens, group manager in the Microsoft TV Platforms Group, in a hallway conversation. Behrens proposed the idea to Braen, who immediately liked it.

“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,'”
Behrens said.
“This will help us break out of the box so that consumers can see the fun and compelling nature of interactive television.”

The first 100 NATPE attendees who signed up for the contest had 60 seconds to pitch their interactive TV programming idea to a panel of judges. The judges selected 30 finalists based on criteria such as the use of interactivity, the feasibility of the idea, and the delivery of the pitch itself. They then narrowed down the finalists to two runner-ups and two winners: Cynthia Shelby-Lane of Detroit and Block-Verk.

Block-Verk won for his
“Space Challenger”
pitch, a home improvement game show that requires three contestants to compete by coming up with the best renovation and decoration scheme for a similar-size room given a set budget. Home viewers participate in an online version of the game, using a picture of the room and clicking to change the room’s features. Home viewers can enter their renovated rooms for a chance to win a grand prize, and actually order the elements that make up the newly-renovated rooms posted on the site from tile manufacturers, furniture retailers, and other participating merchants.

“The home renovation industry is a $30 billion industry, and they’re trying to appeal to the right people,”
Block-Verk said.
“They could be focusing their advertising on a show like this, where people can virtually see what the room will look like once it’s renovated.”

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

The event was streamed live by NATPE’s official webcaster, INTERVU, from the show floor on Tuesday and Wednesday at , offering consumers a chance to vote — courtesy of NATPE’s new media partner — for their favorite interactive TV ideas on the Web site and compare their choices to those of the judges. Participants who were 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 those proposals, Behrens said.

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

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 said.
“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, which 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 said.
“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 noted. 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 said.
“And five years from now, this will be a foregone conclusion.”

Block-Verk admitted that he doesn’t know if his idea will actually be turned into a television program. But no matter what happens, the experience of working in interactive television will strengthen his career as a television producer.
“I have an extremely solid idea of what this can look like, and I think it will take minimal work to get it off the ground,”
he said.
“I’m a television producer, and I have a lot of experience online. So now it’s just a matter of combining both sides of my brain and pushing convergence.”

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