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U.K.'s ITV banking on viewers' playful nature

The British are finding that "participation" television is just their cup of tea.

The U.K.'s ITV has become a leader in the interactive arena, boasting a host of interactive game and dating shows that were generated as part of a drive by the broadcaster to find new revenue streams as a buffer against dwindling traditional ad-based income models. Viewers participate and play for cash — or dates — in real time on ITV.

As a result, ITV's production group Granada has become the biggest producer of participation television throughout Europe and the U.K.

Now David Gyngell, CEO of Granada America, is heading a drive to sell its slate of interactive game shows and technology to U.S. broadcasters. He heads to NATPE next week with the biggest sales force the company has ever fielded.

As part of Granada's plan to expand in the U.S., it has formed a joint venture with participation television specialists Play On TV.

"Traditional television revenue models are changing, and the importance of non-spot advertising revenue is growing rapidly," he believes.

It all started with ITV looking at how to improve profitability as the traditional 30-second spot comes under increasing pressure, Gyngell explains. "They began looking for ways for people to interact with live TV and they put huge resources into developing quality participation television. And it's blossoming. There's going to be (as much as) £30 million-£40 million ($58 million-$77 million) profit for the ITV group."

A show called "Playdate" is one of the more successful results. The program is an interactive dating game where as many as eight contestants join hosts in the studio to chat live with "Playdate" viewers at home.

"The Mint" has been another success. It's a game show that allows viewers to participate to win hefty cash prizes. "Mint" participants must either call in at a cost of 75p ($1.45) from a British Telecom land line, text message the word "mint" to a special number or enter through the ITV Web site. If they are successful, they will be placed on hold. Then, if the computer selects them (at random), they will be transferred live to "The Mint" mansion, where they answer quiz questions.

Granada also has been selling its participation TV expertise in Australia, where the game show "Quizmania" recently logged more than 400,000 calls for Network Nine.

The revenue comes from various sources, including product placement (in the U.S. and Australia) on the shows and the sale of five- or 10-second ads that play on the caller's phone while on hold. Product placement is still illegal in the U.K. and Europe in general, but new legislation will soon ease the restrictions. Gyngell believes that will be a huge boost for the business there.

Play On TV was founded by chief executive Jason George, who made his name in the U.K. by producing interactive programming. He now believes the U.S. offers a wealth of opportunities. "The U.S. participation TV market is set to explode," he predicts. "We are aggressively pursuing deals with broadcasters and have capital to share risk with our distribution partners," he says.

Granada America has a huge slate of programming to sell at NATPE, ranging from its marquee dramas and movies to sitcoms and documentaries. But there will be a special focus on the opportunities that new technology provides for interactive TV, Gyngell says. Heading the division for Granada America is recent appointee Katrina Moran, executive vp digital media.