Canada banking on interactive TV revenue

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TORONTO -- Canadian content carriers are hoping the"interactive television" revolution will at long last deliver to their bottom line this year as free or fee-based homegrown Internet TV offerings are pressing all the right marketing buttons.

An example is TSN Broadband, The Sports Network's on-line offering that airs live on the domestic cable sports channel. Also leading the way iis Toronto-based JumpTV, which is moving from origins in streaming foreign language TV channels on PC computers for a subscription fee to distributing digital ethnic signals on regular TV sets.

"We're competitive and building a long term business," Scott Paterson, JumpTV chairman and CEO, said of some 235 ethnic TV channels from 70 countries that his company delivers via the internet to about 24,000 paid subscribers, half of whom are in the U.S. market.

JumpTV is partnering with cable and satellite TV service that already retransmit foreign language channels from around the world tor each ethnic audiences beyond their footprints.

Philadelphia-based cable operator Comcast in January began offering JumpTV to 10 million high speed internet subscribers for a six-month trial.

And in a separate deal, Spain's Telefonica will deliver JumpTV to its Terra Internet access subscribers in 17 countries in Latin and South America, including channels from Columbia, Brazil and Argentina, and splitting revenues with the Canadian company.

Elsewhere, the Montreal-based Internet Broadcast Corp., which streams and enables downloads of breaking TV news from around the world, in November signed new content sharing deals with the British Broadcasting Corp. and Nigeria's CTV, to add to existing distribution deals with Fox News Corp., Associated Press TV, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and other international broadcasters.

And Ottawa-based ZIM Corporation is also lining up content deals with independent producers for its newly-launched "ZIMTV" internet TV network, while Calgary-based Jet Stream Digital Media unveiled proprietary software enabling low-budget on-line TV networks to sprout up and begin streaming video content.

Jeff Crawford, Jet Stream president and CEO, said his technology enables producers to upload and stream their video content, taking traditional broadcasters and webmasters out of the mix.

"We've basically simplified the process of uploading content and managing what we call a webcast portal," he explained.

Recognizing how the PC world has transformed the digital TV space, Canadian phone giant Bell Canada has begun rolling out interactive TV programming on its Bell ExpressVu LP satellite TV service.

The initiative has started with TSN Extra, interactive software that enables TSN viewers to gain fast access to current sport score, news and statistics, and CBC News Plus, a bolt-on interactive TV service for the CBC Newsworld channel that offers on-demand news stories.

Shawn Omstead, Bell Canada's general manager of IPTV services development, said enabling TV viewers to squeeze back video and audio into a smaller window to view free interactive content extends a computer experience Canadians are increasingly accustomed to.

After all, Canadians in an increasingly wired market have long been able to summon up a player's stats on their computer while watching a sports event on TV.

So launching increasingly personalized and interactive content on its satellite TV service gets Bell Canada further along in its quest to compete against domestic cable giants in offering Canadians a triple-play package of TV, phone and computer services.

"At Bell Expressu, it's now about getting people to change their viewing behavior," Omstead said.

But despite recent developments, Canadian content carriers have a ways to go before ordinary TV viewers embrace domestic internet TV plays.

Canada's broadcast regulator in a recent report on new frontiers in Canadian broadcasting pointed to the recent emergence of free internet protocol TV and other internet TV plays as international broadcasters look to get their signals on-line to reach new audiences.

But the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said internet TV was slow to grow here while generating sufficient new revenue streams to offset steep transition costs for Canadian broadcasters into the emerging digital age.

Despite its slow takeoff, the Canadian industry remains optimistic about exploiting new technologies in internet TV, including the increasing use of high-speed internet access, the iPod and cel phone video by consumers here.

And Canadian internet TV broadcasters have come a long way from earlier 1990s battles over the legality of streaming TV signals on the internet started by the short life of iCraveTV.com in 2000.

iCraveTV.com touched off a North American industry furore when it began snagging U.S. and Canadian TV signals from the airwaves and streaming them for free over the internet.

But recent regulatory decisions on cel phone video and other new media markets indicate the federal government is moving to bring long-standing rules for TV signal retransmission by cable, satellite and other program carriers into line with emerging webcasting technologies.
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