MILIA Got Dotcommers Pondering Simplicity

By Dom Serafini

The recently concluded 9th annual MILIA market for interactive television (Feb. 4-8) in Cannes, France revealed that there are more problems with iTV than meet the eye.

Organized by Reed-Midem of MIP-TV fame, the market experienced a significant decline. The 6,000 people who were originally expected did not materialize. Even though this number represented about 1,000 fewer participants than last year, the unofficial estimate was a drop of 40 percent, which lately seems to be the "magic" reduction figure for all TV markets. Those accustomed to markets like MIP-TV and MIPCOM, also held in Cannes, won't realize that there's a market at MILIA until just before reaching the Palais (exhibition hall).

But according to Laurine Garaude, MILIA's executive director, "we are not in the number business" and the lower number of people "did not impact the business" done at the market. Richard Lightman of the U.K.-based Meringue Productions also pointed out that at MILIA, a competitor could also be a business partner, illustrating the complex nature of the business.

The event was divided between the "Think-Tank Summit" (Feb. 4-5) in which 110 panelists from 17 countries participated, and the main exhibition (Feb. 5-8), with some 650 participating companies and 534 exhibitors on the floor plus a few "hospitality suites" at hotels, a first for Reed-Midem. Amazing as it was, MILIA forced the TV industry to acknowledge that interactive television has been with us for more than 10 years and is surprisingly still unable to find its focus.

One of the problems that surfaced during the various seminars that dotted the five-day market is that executives of the iTV sector speak an incomprehensible language. Not only do they insist on publishing 80-page instruction manuals on how to turn on a cell phone, but it was difficult to make sense out of their presentations during the conference. It's no wonder then, to paraphrase Bill Goodland, director of Internet at U.K. cable TV giant NTL, that only eight out of 1,000 people in the U.K. have a working knowledge of broadband.

On the panel "Broadband Comes of Age, with Goodland was Christian Schock of Astra Multimedia who, in keeping with the typical language of a dotcommer explained simple concepts using complicated words like "experience" instead of "use," "engaging the user" instead of "making the customer happy," "quantify the fun value" instead of ""being entertaining," "low transaction" for "low-cost" and "billing relationship" for "finding a customer." This just after Takeshi Natsuno of Japan's DoCoMo warned in his address that the industry should "not approach consumers with technology jargon."

Now, one can be dismissive of television, since it's arguably at the bottom of iTV's intelligence totem pole, but this superiority complex is not serving iTV very well.

For years now (and after billions of dollars wasted), members of the iTV sector have been working under the delusion that they are the intelligent ones and that the TV industry consists of dumbbells who can't even download RealPlayer onto their computers. The fact is that they insist on thinking that the Net is too complex for TV people in general - dotcommers have yet to embrace simplicity, and they are obviously still not financially astute, even though the key here, in the words of one panelist, is "surviving," not being profitable.

iTV is an industry that, even though it doesn't understand consumers, depends heavily on research, which is traditionally laden with unrealistic predictions that in turn are used to procure investors: the ultimate game. Indeed, MILIA was heavy on research, with one key sponsor being research company Forrester North America.

Neither is iTV in tune with marketing aspects facing the sector. Garaude can't explain the low level of investment that iTV companies allocate to advertising. "It's possibly due to a lack of tradition," he hypothesized, adding that "games people, though, understand the value of advertising."

During the "Monetize Your Content" seminar, it was pointed out that products that cost little to produce, often generate the most amount of money at the consumer level; a clear criticism of the audiovisual product which is perceived as high-cost. However, at the "Broadband Comes of Age" panel, it was stressed that content (i.e. TV programs and movies) is the key to the success of interactive platforms.

The problem, though, is the fact that broadband operators are not yet able to keep their customers satisfied; therefore they experience a 70-percent churn level. It was pointed out that when consumers have dial-ups they tend to download music; with broadband, movies might be copied onto computer hard drives, but the costs are still too high.

Another element that came out of the various seminars is that the industry is way ahead of the consumer. In other words, technology and services are not marching to the same beat. This aspect of the iTV industry came out (in the usual tortuous way) as "a broken chain of values." In other words what is good for the consumer doesn't seem profitable for the iTV industry.

One aspect analyzed by Forrester's Emily Nagle Green during the keynote presentation "When Mainstream Consumers Go Interactive," is that traditional media and new technology media have to deal with both a fragmentation of the audience and a further fragmentation of the media.

At one point it was decided that broadband doesn't yet have a killer app (Net-speak for a winning business model), but games, music, movies and communications (e.g. video conferences) along with education, are good products that, while they may endure in the long run, are in dire need of low-cost offerings. This in spite of the fact that, since 1997, consumers have been paying significantly for content.

Of notable interest were the "New Digital Buyers Club" and the "VIP Software Buyers Club," both of which included individual meeting spaces and a series of round-table discussions to facilitate exchanges. In addition there were "demo areas" specially designed for exhibitors to demonstrate their products and services, such as "TV productions with interactivity integrated" by France's 121 Productions and "Interactive game channels and enhanced game shows and sports programs" by the U.K.'s Two Way TV.