Tuned in to TV

Wink CEO and confessed TVaholic Maggie Wilderotter is not interested in interactive TV that pushes couch potatoes onto the Web.

By Janelle Brown

Published November 22, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

You're kicking back with a beer, watching the Lakers game, when a little icon suddenly materializes in the corner of your big-screen TV. Using your remote, you click on the icon, and up pop the results of the Warriors game taking place on another channel; the scores appear in the corner of the screen, so that you don't even miss Shaq's latest play.

Or, you are watching TV ads when you see a spot for the new Lexus SUV. Up pops that little icon again; you click, and before you know it, a little menu of financing options and local dealerships is scrolling across the bottom of the ad. Another click, and you've sent a dealership your information and asked them to give you a call.

Nope, this isn't another pundit predicting the television of the future. It's what television-viewing has already become, thanks to a 4-year-old company called Wink Communications, if you happen to be one of the 150,000 people who live in Wink-enabled television markets. Interactive television is, in fact, already a reality -- and it is coming soon to 6 million more TV sets across the United States, for free.

Unlike other interactive television projects -- many of which have already failed -- Wink doesn't require special set-top boxes or Internet access. Instead, it uses the cable systems already in place, and embeds information into existing TV data streams. To buy a product, or get information, all the consumer has to do is use the TV remote to click on the icon that floats atop the show.

CEO Maggie Wilderotter, a 20-year veteran of the cable and telephone industries, has been charged with heading up Wink's ambitious projects. So far, she's managed to draw cash infusions from prestigious investors like Vulcan Ventures, Benchmark Capital and Microsoft. She's also signed deals with all the major networks, electronics manufacturers and cable companies. Not bad for a woman who describes herself as a "TVaholic."

Salon Technology spoke with Wilderotter about the past and present of interactive television, and just why consumers might want to buy recipes using their remote control.

Could you explain exactly how the Wink system works -- what gets those little icons on your screen?

We deliver a full end-to-end system for interactive capabilities -- we start with authoring tools that cable programming networks and TV networks can use to enhance video programming. Once they enhance their programs with the tool, it creates the application that travels in the data stream, in the vertical blanking interval or MPEG stream -- we basically marry it with the video. It goes out over satellite to a cable operation, or to a DirectTV uplink, and then the video is translated down to the customer, and the set-top box in the home makes sure that the data is displayed simultaneously with the video.

When you as a consumer click on something that you see that you like, or want more information, Wink will also collect all of the transactions that take place on these platforms and provide information and orders back to advertisers, merchandisers and programmers. It's a full system from start to finish.

What are some of the challenges in creating such a comprehensive system?

You need to have five different stakeholders all committed to using the system in order to really make it a business. You have to have cable and broadcast networks; you need to have distributors -- like cable operators and satellite operators. Wink is working with the top five cable operators and also DirectTV to deploy the service. You also need to have consumer electronic manufacturers working with you to put the software inside their devices, in set-top boxes and televisions.

And you need advertisers to enhance their commercials so that consumers can have the opportunity to buy products. All of those stakeholders have to come together simultaneously with their piece in order to deliver this whole system -- one of the big challenges has been to pull all those stakeholders together.

Interactive television is something that people have been talking about for a really long time; some networks attempted it and failed in the early 1990s. In fact, some say that it already failed as an industry. Why has Wink stuck it through? What's changed?

There have been three or four key things that are different today that make it possible to be successful. First and foremost, there's a lot more power being put on top of the television in the set-top box -- we don't add any hardware cost to the existing set-top box already rolling out, we're actually just leveraging the capabilities that are already in those boxes. Secondly, the Web has been a huge fertile ground for content development -- especially informational content. We can automatically pull data from the Web and display it as an overlay on top of video, so it's very inexpensive to develop content for Wink. Before you had to have people creating all this data from scratch, and it was a very expensive proposition.

Also, consumers are getting very comfortable pointing and clicking with a computer from an e-commerce perspective. That habit of being able to buy with one click also helps us with the e-commerce on Wink.

What was the biggest mistake the interactive television industry was making before?

The interactive experiments were approached from a destination perspective -- in other words, you went to a channel to interact. The beauty about Wink is that we don't have to drive you anywhere to interact -- you simply do it on top of the shows you're already watching. It's geared around why consumers watch TV in the first place: to watch video.

There are 10 million Wink-capable installed boxes today, but there are only 150,000 people using it now. What's holding you back?

The boxes have the capabilities, but we still have to cut the deals with the cable operators to deploy on those platforms. We have agreements for over 6 million homes in the next two years; it's now just a matter of rolling out in all of those markets. We started the rollout several months ago.

How much content is being embedded in the shows, and how much staff does it require to create it?

It depends. We have six or seven networks today where Wink is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On the Weather Channel or CNBC you can pull up weather or financial information by company, team or city. Once we set up the template, that data is refreshed and updated every 10 minutes from their Web site. It takes a couple weeks of work to develop the application, but once it's developed there's no more human intervention because we have an automatic feed.

We also use Wink to enhance events, like the Ryder Cup for NBC. It was a three-day golf event, where we were providing data like match-ups against the players and statistics on golfers. That's more labor intensive -- someone was working at that event. But again, NBC does it for their Web site as well, so we're leveraging the same person.

The average network has a full-time person working on Wink.

It seems like this technology is ripe for product placement -- where you click on the wallpaper in the latest episode of "Friends" and buy it.

I think product placement e-commerce is something we'll see 24 months from now -- the boxes that are in the homes today just don't have the capability to do that yet, but we do see the next generation of boxes as being able to provide functionality for those kinds of services.

What's proven to be the most popular function with consumers?

Informational channels are very high usage -- ESPN, sporting events, the Weather Channel, CNN. On an individual show basis, shows like the "Jay Leno Show," or the "CBS Morning Show" do well -- for example on "Leno," during the monologue, you can pull up lists of guests he'll have on the show, and when the guests come on we have bio and trivia information about them. If he's featuring a band or new act you can actually buy the CD. On the "CBS Morning Show," you can click and get recipes.

How popular has e-commerce been so far?

We started running our first commercials last month -- we had 300 ads in October, we'll do about 500 this month, and we're seeing a very good response rate: Anywhere from 5 to 15 percent actually click through on the ad, and then responses of 50 to 75 percent once they see the offer. Very, very robust.

You decided to overlay the information on top of the show, rather than taking people to the Internet. Why did you decide not to provide Net access?

Two reasons: One, we are a TV-centric service -- we are not about the Web on TV, which is a subscription service. Our service is free. Secondly, our service is mass market -- available to anyone who has a TV set that subscribes to cable or DirectTV service. And we're very friendly to the networks: The networks want to see people on their programming, not taking them away from their programming, which is what a browser service does.

How did you personally end up at Wink? You were at AT&T?

Yeah, I got kidnapped! I had a great job at AT&T; I was chief operating officer of the wireless division, and had been in the wireless business for close to seven years. I spent 12 years in the cable business before that -- I ran the largest management information systems and billing company in the cable industry. So I did have a very good background in understanding transaction processing and putting systems together; I also had a lot of relationships in the cable industry because of my years in the business.

I saw some of the interactive TV experiments when I was in the cable business, and knew a lot about the space. And when I saw the Wink system, it was the first time I saw a system that had a business model that could absolutely work; it had all the elements: being easy for consumers and free, an elegant technology that didn't require a lot of money, that it could leverage the content on the Web, and was very focused on enhancing the current viewing experience.

What's your favorite gadget?

My cell phone -- it's my most favorite gadget. My remote control is also a very favorite gadget of mine in the home -- I have a DirectTV service and cable, so I use all of the remotes. And I actually got my first Palm Pilot a few weeks ago and I'm trying to use it. I'm sure that will become another one!

I'm a TVaholic -- it's funny, when I talk to my folks, they say "It's interesting that the two things you did constantly as a kid were talk on the phone and watch TV. Those are the businesses you've excelled at."

What's the biggest technical disaster you've faced in the past, and what technical hurdles do you see in the future for Wink?

At AT&T Wireless, one of the biggest disasters was when Hurricane Andrew knocked out 123 cell sites on our network -- we had to re-deploy a number of our technical people from all over the country. In a matter of 30 days we restored 100 percent service. That was the biggest disaster I ever faced.

The biggest technical challenge for Wink is making sure that we continue to leverage new enhancements in technology, making sure that we never lose sight of simplicity for the customer.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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