Canadian football fans take rivalries online

Get the ball down the field, outwit the opposing team’s defence, and score a touchdown. Or, as that touchdown is scored, update the score in an interactive game to reflect the impact of that touchdown and deliver the updated scores instantly to a couple of thousand computers. Which is more difficult?

You’ll never get football players and Web developers to agree on the answer to that question, so let’s just say neither one is easy. The second problem was the one TSN, the Canadian sports broadcaster, had to solve in order to launch TSN Interactive, an online application that made its debut in tandem with Canadian Football League (CFL) broadcasts in early September.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, sort of enhancing our broadcasts and drawing people into the experience,” says Paul Kaliciak, director of interactive programming for TSN’s parent, CTV. “CFL was the first opportunity that came up.”

TSN Interactive CFL content became a reality thanks to a deal with Molson, which is sponsoring the online offering. During TSN broadcasts of CFL games, viewers can point their browsers at its Web site to play an online game in which they choose teams, answer trivia questions and make predictions about plays and calls through the game, gaining or losing points based on their answers and predictions and their selected teams’ performance on the field.

There are no prizes, but there is a chat room where armchair quarterbacks can gloat over their success and otherwise shoot the breeze with others watching the game.

The biggest challenge in developing TSN Interactive, Kaliciak says, was the need to deliver content instantly to a large number of computers. A couple of thousand people might be playing the game at a time, he says, and it must deliver questions to them all at the same time, get responses back and tabulate them fast.

The application also had to be easy to use. Viewers needed to be able to do everything with a mouse, without learning any commands, and Kaliciak didn’t want them to have to download any software to make it work.

Kaliciak didn’t want to tackle that challenge in-house, nor did he want to run the application on his own servers. “It’s a challenge to not have them all get swamped and bogged down,” he says.

On a few special projects in the past, he had worked with American broadcaster ABC, which has the technology to do interactive applications like this. But ABC couldn’t spare the capacity to handle a longer-term commitment involving 17 CFL games, especially while busy with its own similar interactive content tied in with National Football League broadcasts.

So TSN turned to Tandberg Television, a Southampton, U.K.-based company with a track record in developing interactive television applications through its acquisition of Goldpocket Interactive late last year. The Goldpocket team, now part of Tandberg, has done interactive TV development for about seven years, says Joe Franzetta, senior vice-president of programmer sales at Tandberg Television.

Tandberg seemed to be the only viable candidate to deliver what TSN wanted, according to Kaliciak. The company has an interactive television platform that it has used to do similar work for major television networks including CBS and NBC, as well as handling purchases through set-top boxes for Home Shopping Network and other projects.

Tandberg uses Adobe Systems Inc.’s Flash technology and Internet browsers as the front end, Franzetta says. Its tool kit includes a Content Producer tool that companies like TSN can use to prepare content. For prerecorded video, this content can be synchronized to time codes in the video. For live broadcasts like the CFL games, Tandberg has another tool called Tech Director that can be used to select content in real time based on what’s happening in the broadcast and to create content on the fly.

Once TSN has prepared its ready-made content for a game, it uploads that to Tandberg’s servers. Tandberg has a proprietary architecture for delivering synchronized content in real time during a broadcast, Franzetta says. The content is delivered in Extensible Markup Language (XML). The application doesn’t use JavaScript, though, so it’s not technically Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX), though there are similarities. The front end does most of the work, says Kaliciak, with just “triggers and text” from the servers, so bandwidth demands are modest. “Theoretically it would work even over a dial-up phone line.”

Kaliciak says he can’t talk about viewer numbers. “It’s good,” he says, “I mean, we want it to be better.” Feedback from those who have logged in has been positive, and “we’ve noticed a lot of people coming back, we’re seeing the same logins week to week.”

For the future, Kaliciak would like viewers to be able to use TSN Interactive from their cellphones as well, and ultimately with more than a text-based interface. That should come: Franzetta says Tandberg has the technology to deliver the basic application to a cellphone now and is working on adding video capabilities.


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