Digital broadcasts ready to turn viewing into hard work

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL GAMES are only the beginning for interactive television. But it remains to be seen whether any of the other services will prove as popular.

Interacting with your television is possible due to two technological developments. The first is the extra space on the broadcasting spectrum afforded by narrower digital signals. It made room for Sky to broadcast what were effectively eight television channels showing yesterday's match between Manchester United and Arsenal, so that viewers could flick between them to choose the picture and on-screen information they wanted.

For other interactive uses, the second crucial development has been the ability of the viewer to communicate with digital television stations through a phone line. This will be used for services such as banking and shopping through the screen.

For pre-recorded programmes, interactivity will be most prevalent on video-on- demand channels where viewers can order films to start when it suits them. There have been experiments by companies like Two Way TV to add an interactive dimension to quiz shows so viewers can win prizes by answering questions, but these have been small scale.

Television companies have found that viewers associate their television with something they watch passively and relax in front of. Viewers may be reluctant to take too active a part in programmes which are by their nature low on viewer involvement - leaving sport as the main genre to be affected by interactive technology.

We can expect to see Sky roll out its interactive features for boxing, cricket, rugby and other live events where there are numerous cameras present.

Most investment in interactive services is not based on changing existing television, but on relieving viewers of their money by adding new services. Sky has formed a partnership with BT, the HSBC bank, and the technology company, Matsushita, to launch an interactive service called Open which will launch in the autumn. It will offer home banking, online computer games, and home shopping with firms such as Somerfield, Dixons and Argos.

Open is offering a pounds 30 infra-red keyboard, which will communicate with the television like a large remote control and will enable up to eight people in every household to have e-mail through the television. All Open's services will be free to subscribers to Sky Digital, with the exception of the cost of a local phone call every time you hook up. Cable companies such as Cable & Wireless and Telewest also have interactive services planned: unlike Open they will link the television straight to the Internet.

About a quarter of holiday bookings originate on teletext: people are getting used to on-screen transactions. Companies hope that even those who refuse to buy a computer or to shop on the Internet will be less reluctant to "surf" if they can do so through their television.