The Future of Television

Computer screens are replacing TVs, but Plano’s BIAP Systems wants to flip the switch. CEO Tim Peters talks about his company’s "killer app" for unsuspecting couch potatoes.

 

Plano-based BIAP won’t be smoothly rolling off tongues like Google, Tivo, YouTube, and other relative newcomers to the techno-media maelstrom. Then again, what’s in a name? Longstanding VH1 sounded more like a virulent flu strain than a cable network when it launched in 1985. And BIAP Systems Inc. CEO Tim Peters admittedly is no tub-thumping, fast-talking P.T. Barnum. Bells, whistles, and media interviews aren’t par for his course. He’d much rather tee up golf balls—he’s played with Michael Jordan—or zero in on a foolproof, profit-maximizing “killer app.”

In the latter realm, Peters has been a quiet assassin intent on wedding TV sets to the Internet in feasible ways that won’t pick the pockets of either investors or consumers. Eureka, he’s certain that BIAP (Broadband Interactive Applications) finally has hit the interactive jackpot.

Not that he’s all that keen on putting his mouth where the money is. Nor does he really need the dough. In 1999, he “retired” a very wealthy man after selling his previous software company for a quarter of a billion in hard cash. But he rejoined the workaday world two years later, seduced by what he sees as “the Rosetta Stone” he’d sought since the 1980s.

“I’m not really sure why we’re doing an article in [DallasCEO] magazine right now,” Peters says on the day after returning from golf’s prestigious Ryder Cup competition in Ireland. “We’ve been doing such a great job of staying under the radar. We’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to make our shareholders money. Whether or not you get press as an individual doesn’t matter.”

 THE TAKEAWAY
1. The best way to get early adapters to new technologies is to make the adapting easy.

2. Consumers want the media they grew up with, even if some consumers are just now growing up.

3. We watch a lot of TV.

BIAP isn’t rocket science, even though its breakthrough software applications were co-developed in 1998 by a former NASA scientist. Basically, the company at last found a cost-efficient way to implant a “little brain” into existing digital cable boxes. Consumers then can use their standard, hand-held TV remotes to access BIAP’s brand of Internet-delivered PITV (Personalized Interactive Television). On-demand options include real-time eBay auctioneering, fantasy baseball and football tracking, indexing the Yellow Pages, and customized features ranging from individual stock updates to local school and community calendars.

BIAP, which employs 15 people in its tucked-away Plano offices and 55 people in all, also partnered with NBC Universal during last winter’s Olympic games. That enabled viewers to summon a wealth of complementary on-screen data such as up-to-the-minute medal counts and biographies of U.S. athletes. The BIAP-in-a-box technology currently is being tested in one million digital cable homes serviced by Time Warner, including the Texas markets of San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Corpus Christi, and El Paso. Its beauty is in the eyes of its beholders. Digital cable subscribers don’t pay any extra monthly charges. Nor do they have to purchase or rent any new equipment. Those had been the highest hurdles.

“For the last 15 years we’ve been proving up this technology,” says Peters, a 49-year-old Illinois native whose father ran a Ford dealership for 50 years. “We knew where the money was, but we couldn’t get to it because of scalability issues. Now we’re really excited about launching this thing into the mass market.”

Others are bullish, too. In August, BIAP landed an eye-opening $20 million investment infusion from Sevin Rosen funds, a venture capital firm specializing in “pioneering technologies and companies with the potential to create new markets.”

“Today’s digital set-top boxes are being transformed into devices that offer viewers an unlimited selection of personalized TV enhancements, and BIAP is leading this revolution. … BIAP has blown through the boundaries of traditional television,” Sevin Rosen partner Ram Velidi said when the investment was announced.

There’s a whole lot of boundary-blowing going on these days in the realm of the boob tube. Television networks are eager to experiment while at the same time striving to keep their traditional living room motherships from sinking beneath all these new waves.

 

BIAP Systems makes your TV screen look more and more like a computer screen. The “action” takes place on a designated portion of the viewing area, with such on-demand options as real-time eBay auctioneering, fantasy baseball and football tracking, indexing the Yellow Pages, and customized features ranging from individual stock updates to local school and community calendars cast in the periphery.

For instance, HDTV’s crystal-clear pictures on jumbo-sized, elongated screens beckon viewers to their couches for a time-tested viewing experience that now spans five generations. That’s what BIAP is betting heavily on. “Ten times more of your leisure day is spent in front of your TV rather than your PC,” says Dan Levinson, the company’s executive vice president.

Increasingly, though, consumers can watch network TV programming whenever and almost wherever they want on the Internet, their iPods, or their cell phones. But the pictures aren’t nearly as pretty, let alone as big. So the big picture remains fogged. What technologies will hit home runs? Where will mega-profits come from? And might Gen Y’ers (today’s 15-to-27-year-olds) and Gen Z’ers (preschoolers) be inclined to forsake traditional TV-watching almost entirely?

“The media that you grew up with determines who you are,” says Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development for NBC Universal. And Gen Y’ers have “never known a time without the Internet or video games, and have always known a time with cell phones. … They’re highly selective, and portability is huge for them. The idea of walking around with their media is something they just sort of take for granted.”

Still, Wurtzel and his data-absorbing network colleagues are hard-pressed to predict what might fly, particularly in a world where everyone increasingly is their own pilot.

“We could learn everything there is to know about how the consumer is behaving today, and that will matter for just a few weeks,” says Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media. “Because there’s going to be something else out there. … We’re in kind of a beta-test mode in this world.”

Peters’ adventures in interactive TV date to the videotape battles between Beta, which lost, and VHS, which won but now is being obliterated by DVD discs. In 1985, while in graduate school at the University of Denver, he founded the Information Express Company. Basically it took the Yellow Pages to new destinations—cell phones, personal computers, and “then the third piece, TV,” Peters says.

 

He started a new venture, Source Media, Inc., in 1988, while also relocating corporate offices from Denver to Dallas. Rocky Mountain highs are hard to beat, but Dallas takes care of business better than any city he knows. The new company quickly went public on NASDAQ and began launching a series of interactive TV initiatives. Some of what BIAP is doing now had its origins at Source Media. Consumers could access shareholder JCPenney’s catalogues, buy music, and access  their children’s homework assignments via the TV screen.

Still, the law of economics kept the company at bay.

“The only difference then was you had to buy a new box,” Peters says. “We wanted to take this from 20,000 homes to 60 million. But there was no killer application.”

Not yet, anyway.

Peters made a mega-million-dollar killing selling Source Media to Liberate Technologies in 2000. Healthy, wealthy, and 43, Peters anticipated retiring to the golf course and also having more of a home life with his wife, Christy, and their three sons, Garrett, Zach, and Evan. Nurturing technological ideas is all well and good, but on a whole he’d rather be swinging a club or occasionally shooting hoops with his boys.

“Golf is a passion,” he says. “I used to always tell my sons that their priorities are God, family, work, and golf. Sometimes they tell me I’ve got my G’s missed up.”

Casually dressed in a links-ready orange knit shirt, he recalls playing 20 rounds of golf in 11 days while vacationing in Scotland.

“If you really want to find out about somebody, you can find out on the golf course,” Peters says. “For four hours, the people you’re playing with can’t hide the way they handle success, how they handle losing. It’s the one sport that’s grounded in gentlemanly behavior and based on self-governance.”

He can still beat all three of his sons on the links, but his two oldest, Garrett, 18, and Zach, 13, are dominating their six-foot, three-inch dad on the home basketball court. (Peters was a guard on the Eastern Illinois University basketball team.)

“That just requires intelligence and experience,” he says of so far maintaining his edge in golf.

Otherwise, artificial intelligence is his game. Basically it’s the creation of “smart agents” that “remember what you tell them to remember,” says Levinson, who orchestrates a demonstration of BIAP’s interactive prowess before the bossman walks in to ask rhetorically, “Isn’t this a great country?”

Television screens, Peters believes, are the last great frontier of interactivity. They’re also, of course, a prime source of advertising. So cable operators can sell “sponsorship banners” and “advertiser drill-down pages” to complement BIAP’s Fantasy Sports trackers, eBay bid alerts, and other fingertip information. The adornments can be viewed in three-quarter screen mode or on a ticker crawl while users continue watching their favorite programs.

When is enough enough, though? Andy Streitfeld, whose Dallas-based AMS Production Group specializes in effective corporate and broadcast communications, wonders if enough viewers really want to compromise what’s largely been a passive experience.

“If I’m watching TV, I don’t really want to be doing anything else,” he says. “It’s so hard to know whether something is a gimmick or whether a lot of people will keep using it.”

 
CLICK HAPPY: Sevin Rosen gave Tim Peters 20 million reasons to smile with a recent investment infusion. 
photography by James Bland

Television-watching wedded to primitive forms of interactivity dates to the 1953 CBS Saturday morning children’s show “Winky Dink and You.” Kids could send away for a kit made up of a clear piece of plastic, some crayons and a wipe-away cloth. When cartoon Winky got into trouble—say he fell into a manhole—kids could rescue him by putting the plastic over their TV screen and then drawing a set of steps by which their hero could climb out.

It’s not known whether this was a profitable venture. But anyone who still has a pristine, unused kit could probably sell it for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Cell phone and online voting on hit TV shows such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars are a current-day form of interactivity, although the only additional on-screen enticements are the call-in numbers and web addresses. Peters agrees that BIAP’s big breakthroughs come in times when “consumers already have thrown up their hands” at the onslaught of new ways to see, hear, multitask, whatever.

“I think they have rebelled,” he says. “And now technologists and entrepreneurs have to find out how to satisfy their needs without putting any more stress on them. For us, if we have to push something in the U.S., we don’t do it. But if we can pull you one step and get you to enter your zip code for weather on demand, then we’ve broken through. Everything we’ve learned over the past 18 years is, ’Don’t push these people into anything, because they’re getting fed up.’”

The next several years likely will determine whether BIAP in fact will fill largely untapped appetites or be dismissed as so much technological filler. Peters sees it as a gold rush, with 60 million potential customers as the mother lode. Or maybe this is a more apt metaphor: He’s lining up a tricky 10-foot putt on the 18th green at legendary Augusta National, home of the Masters. Make it and he’ll break par. Miss it and he may never again have that chance.

That’s kind of where BIAP is, and Peters thinks he’s read everything just right. It’s “killer app” time.

“We’ve learned not to get enamored of the technology, but to get very focused on where the money is,” he says. “We’ve finally broken the code on how to do this economically. Isn’t this a great country?”

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments