Spotlight on EBIF: Bringing Interactivity to the Marketplace

A stroll around The Cable Show floor reveals at least a dozen interactive TV services built on a specification called EBIF, or Enhanced TV Binary Interchange Format.  EBIF is the central building block for Comcast’s eye-popping new service, Xfinity Remote, built for the iPad and designed to allow customers to view content on the iPad as well as communicate with their set-top boxess.

But EBIF is not a reference to a specific interactive TV application, according to a group of content and cable executives who are forging new two-way TV applications with the technology.  Speaking here on a panel entitled EBIF Nation:  The Building of a New Interactive Platform, Comcast’s Senior Vice President of Product Development Mark Hess outlined the variety of applications developed with EBIF, including a home shopping application, onscreen Caller ID, DVR recording, viewing reminders, and more.  “We know we can make it work in a variety of situations,” he said.

The most immediate use for EBIF is to drive revenue growth, enabling advertisers, the traditional revenue source for TV programing, to find new and innovative ways to generate leads, hit target audiences and gain more granular data on consumer reactions to campaigns.  One key purpose of EBIF is to “link all of those silo’ed interactive systems of consumers to advertisers… completing the loop,” Canoe Ventures CTO Arthur Orduña said.

Time Warner Cable has a great track record so far in helping advertisers reach audiences with EBIF applications, said Time Warner Cable EVP & President of Media Sales Joan Gillman.  In New York City, Chase Manhattan has been recruiting customers with an EBIF-powered pitch to impressive results.  In the Los Angeles market, traditional direct mail campaigns are on the wane due to the operator’s success with two-way advertising, according to Gillman.

While Canoe Ventures developed EBIF to help its cable backers provide content partners with a convenient way to add interactivity to linear programming, some traditional content providers are still hesitantly testing the waters.  Despite its success in using EBIF apps with its recent Olympics coverage, NBC-Universal is wrestling with the cost and  the need for ongoing customization of the new technology for less widely viewed programming.  “We’re still in kind of a tricky place.  We can’t say we have a clear interactive TV strategy because the market has to churn more,” Michael Aaronson, Vice President of Digital Platforms at NBC-Universal said.

“I got introduced to these two dirty little words called ‘user agents,'” Aaronson added, referring to EBIF client applications that reside in set-tops.  “It’s not ‘build once and deploy it everywhere.’  It’s ‘build once and modify here and modify it there.'”

These growing pains are all part of the process, Orduña said.  “The fact that there are early day issues making sure that there is a single app on multiple user agents is a very good sign.  You have to test them and you have to test them with respect to interoperability.”

Don’t get too hung up on the technology, Gillman advised.  “It really does at the end of the day come down to building audience.  EBIF is another production tool.”

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