Teletext's short cut to hi-tech highway

Technology: the screen text services claim the edge on price and availability in the rush for interactive media. All you need is a TV and a touch-tone phone
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IN THE STAMPEDE on to the information superhighway, there is one medium many have overlooked. Teletext, although anything but new, offers information on demand and interactivity, and is widely available today. Now, teletext service providers are upgrading their products in an attempt to bring complete interactivity to the masses.

Earlier this month, BSkyB launched Intertext, a text-based service offering viewers personalised information and home shopping. It can be accessed by any Sky viewer with a teletext TV and a touch-tone telephone.

The viewer tunes in to the teletext service on Sky One, Sky Sports, Sky News or Sky Movies and calls up the relevant home page. He or she is instructed to call a premium-rate telephone number and then navigate the service, selecting options from on-screen menus by pushing numbers on the phone.

Intertext has a range of services through partnerships with Investors Chronicle and the Co-Operative Bank, P&O European Ferries and Thomas Cook, First Call and the catalogue company Kays, which offers home shopping.

"We are providing additional services to viewers and learning about interactivity - response time, viewer demand - as well as building relationships with content providers," explains BSkyB's interactive services director, Michael Mercieca. "It is the first step towards a fully interactive service."

Meanwhile Teletext Ltd, the teletext provider for ITV and Channel 4, has launched Live Ads. The company claims Live Ads is the UK's first interactive advertising and messaging service. Again, by calling a number and using the telephone key pad, viewers input their small ads or other messages, following a code displayed on-screen which translates letters into digits - A is 11, B 12, and so on. "It's interactivity for the masses, and it's available now," says Lawrence Lawson, the Teletext sales and marketing director.

"It's a cheap alternative to new technologies and it's accessible. All you need is a teletext TV and a touch-tone phone."

A more sophisticated service extending the Live Ads concept is now being developed and Teletext is considering the potential for home shopping.

A third company, Two Way Television, is just one of a number of others also developing this technology. TWTV is testing a service involving the broadcasting of text to a "black box" on the television set. Viewers can then access a range of games and other information relating to particular television programmes, interacting with the broadcast via special handsets. Game scores and other viewer response data is then relayed to TWTV headquarters by telephone line.

Teletext technology, which broadcasts text in addition to pictures direct to a television set, is almost 20 years old. Around 54 per cent of UK homes, more than 12 million households, now have a teletext TV set, and their numbers are growing by about one million a year.

Teletext can carry huge volumes of information and can be constantly updated. It has been criticised by some as archaic or slow. But it is truly a mass medium. Teletext Ltd claims 16.9 million adults and children use its service each week. Ceefax, the BBC text service, which carries no advertising, has a weekly audience of 13.5 million.

At the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, Katherine Jerman, media planning group director, believes teletext offers an effective testing ground for new media marketing. "It's certainly good for testing interactivity. It's accessible, non-techno and not at all intimidating."

In the new media market, advertisers must address a vital problem: how to ensure their advertising is seen when the consumer can increasingly avoid the advertising message. The answer is by being unobtrusive and creative, by standing out without alienating. "Advertising can be signposted in areas of interest and lead consumers to other areas where they can find out more," Ms Jerman explains.

Understanding how consumers use interactive media is essential, she says. Get it right, and it can work. Teletext cites this as a factor in claiming it is the UK's No 1 holiday advertising medium, generating 15-20 per cent of all UK holiday sales.