Can ESPN Bring Some Respect To Interactive Television?


The secret to Wayne Gretzky’s greatness on the ice was that he didn’t skate to where the puck was, but where he anticipated it might go next. It’s fitting that a sports network like ESPN (NYSE: DIS) is heeding that advice, even if it’s veered off into the industry equivalent of the rafters: interactive television.

No industry technology has been waiting as long for its big breakthrough as iTV, which layers the passive experience of a telecast with tools enabling viewers to be active participants in the programming. There’s been countless experimentation over the years, but little traction.

Now iTV is coming back into vogue for the eighth time for a variety of reasons, from the advent of laptop- or mobile-driven social TV to the emergence of the iPad as a second-screen companion. But there’s still hope for the so-called one-screen solution, which contains both the broadcast and the interactivity to the boob tube.

ESPN recently deployed iTV applications on two different fronts that just might start to get some momentum. Web-enabled Samsung TVs just introduced ScoreCenter, which gives viewers the ability to corral the scores and statistics relevant to their favorite teams. The upcoming Consumer Electronics Show will likely shine a light on these types of widgets, which is just another word for apps that sit on your TV set instead of your smartphone.

Another example is what you might call a two-box delivery to the one-screen solution. Last week, XBox Live Marketplace deployed the first interactive feature on its ESPN3 channel: “College Bowl Showdown” lets viewers make predictions on the scores of the 32 bowl games and compete against their friends for real prizes.

Are these just the latest one-off examples of the kind of iTV experiments that will soon join the extra-large dustbin where its predecessors rest for eternity? Maybe. But TV apps and consoles feel like places where there’s possibility for growth. Call it a hunch.

But think about the implications of that hunch. Samsung and XBox deliver interactivity that circumvents what’s known as the traditional source of any kind of computational brainpower in your television: the set-top box. For all the endless talk about the rise of over-the-top TV, it’s rare to see analysts note as a strategic advantage the interactivity OTT players may be able to provide better than limited STBs. Fast-forward a few years, and these kind of bells and whistles may be almost as impactful as price and programming choice as a factor in the decline of incumbent service providers.

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