By Mark Steven Miller
Printed February, 2001

Pioneering the Interactive Landscape

Jonathan Leess is a broadcast visionary known for accomplishing great feats. After joining ABC in 1980, his long list of credits as director of Remote Operations for ABC Sports included an Individual Achievement Emmy Award for his work in organizing the broadcast of the 1991 Pan American Games from Cuba. It was there that Leess conceived and negotiated a plan to build an entire Olympic-sized broadcast facility in Florida, dismantle and transport it—300 people and all required supplies—by cargo ship to Havana. Upon completion of the three-week broadcast, every last person and piece of equipment was transported back to the U.S.

Clearly, this is a man who is up for the next big challenge. Today—as senior vice president/general manager of  Walt Disney’s Internet Group and ABC’s Enhanced Television division—that challenge is developing a new, unique type of programming that leverages the eventual convergence of the TV and PC. To this end, his stated goal is to create one-to-one relationships with the millions of viewers that have logged on during an “enhanced” ABC telecast of Monday Night Football or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

DIGITAL TV correspondent Mark Miller spoke with Leess about his transition to the new media environment.

DIGITAL TV: You moved into internet production long before many thought it feasible. Why?

Leess: From 1980 through 1990, I helped to introduce several production innovations to ABC Sports, always encouraging our teams to move forward to assume a leadership role in new digital technologies. In 1995, I introduced to our division an MCI remote email system connecting our entire staff of producers and management around the world. At the time, hardly anyone even knew what email was, but we got laptop computers for our producers and production managers implementing a very productive communications system utilizing email.

In 1995, our company (Capital Cities/ABC) negotiated a deal with America Online; whereby ABC would provide content on  the AOL service. At that time, I don’t think they had more than 200,000 to 500,000 subscribers. So Keith Ritter, Vice President Marketing for ABC Sports, and I  volunteered to represent the sports division and to program an ABC Sports area on America Online. Cap Cities allotted us a budget to hire one person. But we took the salary allotted and hired two people: one tech op and one sports jock. We took over one of the copy room areas at ABC Sports, moved the machines out and put in two desks with two internet connected computers. This became the production facility for what was to become the ABC Sports Multimedia Division.

From 1995 to 1996, we programmed an ABC Sports area on AOL called “ABC Sports Online”, which quickly grew into a profitable business for us. Leveraging our relationships with the sports leagues, we negotiated the digital rights and created and produced Team NFL, for the National Football League on AOL, NHL ICE for the National Hockey League, a NASCAR site, a Triple Crown site, and a SportsTicker feed with auto-updated live scores for all sports on AOL. We also developed the first-ever online MLB All Star Game balloting on America Online in 1995. Users could go online and vote for their All Star Game players and Major League Baseball counted these in their paper-ballot totals.

DIGITAL TV: Coming from a traditional TV producer’s background, how did you find the Internet production environment?

Leess:  It virtually didn’t exist. I come from a television background where urgency and immediacy prevail. The Internet programming groups and technology developers (of those that existed) were very different. As a broadcast group, we  produced live sports telecasts on weekends. Many of the Internet groups, especially at AOL, worked 9 to 5 Monday through Friday.

DIGITAL TV: What led to your decision to move into Enhanced TV?

Leess: An opportunity arose in 1997 following  The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Cap Cities/ABC. They began consolidating all of our internet properties within the organization. The Disney Strategic Planning group was also working with Disney Imagineering on a project focused on the emerging changes in traditional media over the next five to 10 years. The Disney Imagineering group put together an actual live working demo of what television might look like in the year 2005. Basically, at the time, it was a large screen TV that had connected to it everything you could buy in a consumer electronics store, from a Nintendo game to a WebTV box, to a printer connected to the TV, to five or six remote controls, to a keyboard, to a PDA card.

All of it was wired up to operate in real-time, like a true interactive TV. You could freeze live television, you could choose any segments from a TV show and view it instantly, and you could shrink the picture to a postage stamp while viewing a menu of options. And while watching TV, you could see your buddy, who’s watching the same show at the same time, in a small window on your TV screen.

Obviously, behind the wall in the demo room was a set of servers and a person on camera, but it piqued my interest to volunteer and see where this was headed.

Fortunately, the company got behind us with an initiative (originally dubbed “Telefusion”) that evolved into ‘Enhanced TV’. Our initiative was initially focused on the largest at home install base (desktop and laptop computers) and how we could actually develop a product that would eventually become interactive TV. Rather than waiting for technology to set the standards, we decided to work with a popular high-profile, prime time television show and roll out an interactive application of our own as soon as we could. We would have never met this accelerated deadline without the brilliant and focussed technology developement from the Disney Imagineering R&D team members Eric Hazeltine, Scott Watson andDrew Beecham. So in 1998, we launched an live real-time interactive enhanced television along with live Monday Night Football telecasts, on set top boxes and over the Internet delivered to online computer screens.

DIGITAL TV: What was the biggest challenge in getting this project approved?

Leess: Corporate took our proposed five-year plan and cut it back to a nine-month window. They preferred that we prove there was an business before committing to extensive resources and expense. It was actually the right decision as it challenge and motivated us to be highly focused. We  narrowed down our expenses, we closed specific opportunities for a revenue stream, and with significant input from Roger Goodman, a multi-talented, Emmy Award winning ABC Sports/News director, we nailed down the design and creative aspects of what the product would be in a very short period of time.

We ultimately decided to focus on the Internet application, because the web had the largest install base of TV and computer homes creating an instant two-way connection with a critical mass market. The two-screen platform was a better way to go because it provided the best opportunity for us to get immediate feedback and gauge any appetite and, ultimately, a business with a mass prime-time audience.

DIGITAL TV: The enhanced versions of Monday Night Football and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire have been enjoying some impressive visitor and connect time numbers. What have you gained by proceeding with this initiative?

Leess: Well, the greatest thing we’ve gained is “traction”. And that’s getting the media programmers, creative, sales, all of the traditional media groups of our overall company to take what we’re doing seriously, support it by providing their feedback and help us shape the business.

Take a show like Monday Night Football; football’s been around network television for over 30 years. You can’t go in and suddenly create extensive interactivity for that telecast. You need to be subtle and careful not to create a distraction from an experience that’s been successful for so many years. However, for producers who are dreaming up a new TV show who want, from the beginning, to include interactivity, that’s where you can hit the home run, and that’s where we’re beginning to get additional traction. Our TV divisions are beginning to include our interactive TV unit in their early conceptual stages.

More importantly, we’ve created a whole new dynamic area of exposure for the advertising industry. This is a significant created value for them to step up and reach these engaged audiences, have them actually involved in the TV commercial while the sponsors learn about the emerging values of interactive television. We’ve created traction there by actually providing attentive, engaged audiences for the advertisers and a new revenue stream for ourselves.

DIGITAL TV: What kind of measurable results have you achieved in terms of ratings?

Leess: Our nightly usage is solid and consistent, with anywhere from 75,000 to as high as 650,000 interactive viewers during a given telecast. But it’s hard to create an accurate picture right now of what effect the number of interactive users is having on the number of TV viewers. The statistics state that out of 100 million TV homes, 30 million homes claim they watch TV while surfing the Internet. However, how many of those  homes are actually watching your TV show, and how many of those TV homes are actually convergent homes (TV and computer together), so you might get a smaller percentage.

However, interestingly, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has a 30 to 31—minute average television viewer time in a one hour telecast. Our average connect time for the Enhanced TV users for that show is upwards of 39 to 41 minutes per user. Now imagine when the application and the show are on one device and in a hundred million interactive homes. By then, Enhanced TV could have a profound effect on the number of total viewers and how we keep our audiences tuned to the telecasts.

That’s our mantra: “Keep our viewers tuned to the telecast”, and use the interactive components to keep them there, not drive them away or distract them.

DIGITAL TV: Do you feel that you’ve created one-to-one relationships with your viewers?

Leess: Absolutely. On the football application we have a live ref that talks and communicates directly with the live users, gamers and viewers. We get emails back from people and respond to them quickly. We respond to the viewer response surveys. We hold focus groups for direct feedback and input. Our goal is to learn from our audiences, and we’ve gotten positive feedback about our one-on-one communication with them as well. Not only is the viewer response positive about what we’re producing, they’re also open about what they don’t like…like not being able to get up during the TV commercials or they’ll lose game points.

DIGITAL TV: Some people say that personal video recording technology is going to kill the 30—second spot? Do you agree?

Leess: I think that in the future the 30—second commercial is going to be something that has the ability to target, to deliver, to actually empower the advertiser and sponsor to get immediate results, rather than waiting for results a month or two later. Interactive TV will transform the 30—second commercial into a means of getting instant results from the buyer. This will allow very clear, concise decisions on media buys, based on their success rate. Overnight, media can be shifted to actually take advantage of those results and the outcome of the interactive spot. It’s absolutely going to change the way traditional media is bought and sold.

DIGITAL TV: You are working on two screens now. When do you anticipate going to a one-screen application?

Leess: We actually began one-screen programming in 1998 when we tested WebTV based one-screen applications, but did not roll it out because that market was not even near critical mass (and it’s still isn’t today). We are now rolling over to test more of the set-top boxes because there are several different platforms and software options. It’s a complicated process and will take time. Different cable systems and different satellite systems use different boxes, so we’re in the process of testing all of them with hopes of providing compelling, dynamic single-screen interactive programming in the future.

DIGITAL TV: What challenges do you see in producing one-screen applications?

Leess: I think one of the greatest challenges will be to figure out what enhancements and interactive advertising will be accepted by the viewer AND who will be offering them. Will it be the cable operator, the sponsor, the producer of the program, the distributor of the content, the manufacturer of the device or the company that owns the box? It seems like there’s a very long food chain beginning to develop.

DIGITAL TV: What advice do you have for local stations in making the transition to Enhanced TV?

Leess: Most, if not all, local stations have websites. The first thing they could do is to begin tying their telecasts to their websites on a regular basis. In the two-screen world, if you have a live local news program, get viewers to get online. Encourage them to tell you what they think and then roll that right into the show while they’re on the air. Learn your audience, get closer to them, learn what they’re willing to do, and be creative with concepts and ideas of how you can use real-time, two way technology that works with your broadcasts. Be responsive. Eventually, when interactive technology allows the viewer to use the television as a consumer appliance, other than just entertainment, the local markets will benefit the most and local stations will be able to get so much closer to their viewers.