Tune in, log on, kick off, fumble

Is Internet programming ready for prime time? That's the question that Walt Disney officials sought to resolve Monday night, when their much ballyhooed "enhanced television" aired online during the Fiesta Bowl broadcast on ABC.

Viewers who had pre-registered through ESPN.com, ABCNews.com, ABC.com and the Bowl Championship Series site, abccfb.com, received content that included enhanced statistics and players -- data similar to what game commentators Keith Jackson and Bob Griese received in the broadcast booth. They also participated in an interactive football game that awarded points when users correctly guessed which player would get the ball in the ensuing play.

Disney received help from its Infoseek engineers in Bellevue, Washington, ABC production teams at the game in Tempe, Arizona, a control-room team in New York, and ESPN.com editors in Bristol, Connecticut, to produce the Fiesta Bowl content that was transmitted to 100,000 PCs.

A few minutes after kickoff, the maximum number of participants had already signed on, prompting Keith Jackson to announce on the air that those shut out should try again in the second half. The performance of the enhanced television programming suffered a series of freeze-ups attributed to access problems. Game statistics were delayed in the first quarter and cyber ads were slow to download during commercial breaks.

Disney officials acknowledged that myriad bandwidth and access issues still need to be rectified before enhanced broadcasting can be sent over the Internet to larger audiences.

The project was designed to provide TV viewers with enough compelling content to keep them from abandoning the boob tube for the Internet, especially during ratings-grabber events. Rather than treat the Internet as a threat to sagging TV ratings, Disney wants to develop programming that will allow viewers to use both the Net and TV simultaneously.

"We don't see (the rise in Internet viewership) as a problem," said Kevin Mayer, Disney's senior vice president of strategic planning. "We see it as an opportunity to create programming that can bridge across two media."

Mayer suggested that similar Web/TV programs could be developed in the future for news, sports events and awards shows like the Oscars. The network envisions generating advertising and commerce revenue from future Web simulcasts, Mayer noted.

"This is really a tremendous precursor to broadcasting because it allows us to determine what convergence could look like," said Jonathan Lees, vice president of ABC Multimedia. But when asked if the company is on the brink of becoming a mainstream entertainment platform, he responded: "I really can't tell you what this will end up looking like."

The enhanced television program was promoted on ABC and ESPN college football bowl game telecasts a week prior to the telecast. Disney officials, who hoped to compile next-day data on the event, did not have an exact tally of participants as of midday yesterday.

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