Liberate Gives Its Cable Partners a Pop in the TV

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In order to speed adoption of its interactive television service, Liberate Technologies has brought together a group of content providers to give cable operators something with which to play.

Liberate, essentially a Web-on-TV experience, licenses its service to cable operators. The cable operators then take the service, brand it with their logo, look and feel, and distribute it to their customers as a digital upgrade. Liberate does not, however, make interactive programming, nor does it plan to.

"With PopTV, Liberate acts as a sort of marriage broker," said Erik Smith, director of developer relations at Liberate Technologies, San Carlos, CA. "We are getting different organizations together working for the same thing, which is an interactive TV launch. We want to promote interactive television to all potential people that it would make sense to have relationships with these cable companies. We are not going to be responsible for the relationships. That's up to the cable operator and the content provider. We just want to make sure that they are aware of each other and working together."

PopTV is a prepackaged "walled garden" of content that Liberate gives for free to cable operators planning to use the Liberate service in the future. It is never indented for direct deployment; it is to be used by the cable companies during their I-TV trials. The trials involve the cable companies selecting a town containing between 3,000 and 10,000 people and promoting the interactive service for a limited time.

The content, advertising and technology partners involved in the program make up an impressive list -- among them are; Bloomberg; Fox;; Lifetime Network; PBS; Oxygen; Sesame Workshop; The Weather Channel; Mixed Signals; AdForce; Tribune Co.; and RespondTV. The company plans to continually announce new partners and upgrade the package as warranted.

Comcast and Cox, two of the four biggest cable providers in the country, will be the first to use the PopTV variety pack in trials that should take place within the next year or so, Smith said. The first place anyone will use the Liberate service is with AOLTV, which is rolling out this year. America Online, however, does not have any direct function within the PopTV program.

The package has no direct effect on Liberate's bottom line, but it is designed to benefit the company in that it will speed deployment of its service.

"For us the biggest benefit is ... we are [a] subscription-based revenue, and if this helps them get interactive television quicker, that helps our business model and that's our bottom line," said Smith.

"We make no money of off this at all. The way we make money is when set-top boxes are out on the market, we get some subscription fees from cable operators that way. Our customers are cable operators. PopTV makes it easier to roll out a trial without the cable companies having to go out and cut individual trial deals on their own. We want them to work with the people, work well with them and then cut separate deals outside of the variety pack."

The package is also helpful because I-TV is such a new field that cable operators need to experiment without fear they will lose cash, said Smith. The package also helps the other companies involved because for many, it is their first step into I-TV, Smith added.

"The dot-coms who are smart enough to see this as a way to extend their brand are going to do well, and I think other people that ignore it are going to run into some challenges," Smith said. "Operators need to do this because it is a way to get them real-world experience of what is successful and what isn't successful. This is a very new market, and there is a lot of experimenting going on. People are just now trying to understand what business and distribution models are. This is a way for companies to make educated guesses based on real active experience inside the interactive television space."

Smith said he sees programs like PopTV as a suitable way to encourage cable operators and content providers to get involved with I-TV in its present stages. The greatest hurdle that I-TV had in the past was that it was a closed, proprietary system, Smith said.

"With technological improvements it doesn't have to be that way anymore," Smith said. "The same people who are building Web sites can build I-TV, and when the carriage is there, we will be able to build interactive television shows in sync to broadcast. New skill sets are not required; development will drive this."

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