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MEMORY LANE: A city ahead of its time

Wed, 12/31/2008 - 7:20pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

The playbook being drafted by Canoe owes a tacit debt of gratitude to San Antonio.

San Antonio is a long way from New York City, where the newly minted cable industry initiative known as Canoe Ventures hopes to revolutionize television advertising. But the playbook being drafted by Canoe and its president, Stewart Schleyadvertising industry impresario David Verklin, owes a tacit debt of gratitude to the second-largest city in Texas.

Nearly 20 years ago, many of the techniques and tactics that today fall under the semantic umbrella of “advanced advertising” were tested and measured by a long-forgotten cable television company called KBLCOM.

The company itself was odd enough: a cable operation owned by a Texas energy company, Houston Industries Inc. KBLCOM operated in San Antonio during a tumultuous, go-go period in the cable industry’s adolescence, when capital requirements to build-out big-city cable systems created unlikely entrants typified by a common trait: wads of cash.

Somehow, the outsider persona of KBLCOM seemed to invite innovative concepts the mainstream cable industry was unable, or unwilling, to try. Many of them revolved around the nascent business of local cable advertising.

It was a time, in the early 1990s, when cable’s local advertising business was starting to look like something meaningful. Still, most operators at the time were content to sell groupings of 30-second spots to local car dealers, furniture retailers and jewelry stores on the most simplistic terms. Offering randomly organized “run-of-schedule” inventory, the operators bundled up groups of local availabilities and sold them to clients in bulk. With little in the way of local audience measurement or sophisticated campaign-analysis tools available, the business was eloquently simple. Advertisers bought time, and if their sales seemed to improve, they re-upped the next month.

Not so in San Antonio, where KBLCOM’s local advertising operation was managed by a rogue band of managers who acted at times like brash kids let loose in the amusement park. Led by an inventive ad-sales executive, Len Allsup, and a disarmingly effective local ad-sales manager, Sharon Blankenship, KBLCOM turned its San Antonio ad-sales operation into a test bed for new forms of advertising that were years ahead of their time.

At a time when two-way cable networks were a distant vision, KBLCOM rigged its San Antonio system to deliver a relatively crude type of polling system – it was branded Star Response – that allowed customers to respond on the fly to certain advertisements embedded within KBLCOM’s network-allotted availabilities. When a local commercial for a furniture retailer ran using the system, viewers could respond to an on-screen cue that invited them to “vote” to receive extra information in the form of a brochure or direct-mail flyer. KBLCOM also used its Zenith addressable cable network to derive highly granular information about viewing habits, gleaned directly from set-top boxes. In the pre-Internet era, the ideas were provocative. KBLCOM had coupled a mechanism to imbue a traditional TV commercial with an interactive element, along with a way to derive precise data about which channels viewers were watching, and when. It was revolutionary stuff.

By the mid-1990s, KBLCOM went away, at least as a corporate entity, as Houston Industries’ cable investments were sold to Time Warner. Its legacy, though, lives on in some respects through the work now being done by the cable industry partnership, Canoe Ventures, whose ambitions include making viewer-responsive advertising a large-scale offering through cable MSOs. Among the possibilities being explored by the Canoe team are polling and response mechanisms that would enable viewers to request additional information about products and services advertised over cable. This time, they’re doing it in a more sophisticated manner, with techniques such as video “telescoping” able to supply viewers with additional detail about automobiles and other products instantly. But the notions expressed in the late 1980s by KBLCOM in San Antonio remain very much alive in today’s budding interactive advertising environment. Dish Network, for instance, allows viewers to tap a button or two on the remote control to request brochures and information about products advertised over the satellite TV provider’s interactive ad network.

As interactive advertising vehicles come to the market, it would be justly poetic to see San Antonio (now a Time Warner Cable market also served by AT&T’s U-verse) somehow involved in the mix. Nobody there is apt to remember the early experimentation rendered by a long-forgotten local cable company. But it’s worth recalling that 20 years ago, the city had the unlikely distinction of being the place where advanced advertising – now the in-vogue term for the marriage of interactive TV and traditional commercial messaging – took some of its first halting steps.

stewart@stewartschley.com

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