Cable TV chases finicky viewers (1 Viewer)

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Apr 18, 2005
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Sponsors, networks leery of changes
BY SETH SUTEL
Associated Press

ATLANTA — There's a big power shift in the world of paid television, and it's not between the traditional rivals of cable and satellite. Consumers are getting more control over what and how they watch, and cable operators are doing everything they can to cater to their rapidly evolving desires.

As the cable TV industry's annual trade show got under way Monday in Atlanta, one of the hottest topics was finding ways to keep abreast of consumers' TV-viewing habits, which seem to change daily as shows become available over the Internet, on portable devices, and on DVDs.

Cable operators continue to struggle to find top-rated shows to drive usage of their growing on-demand services, which currently make up about 5 percent of viewership in the places they're available, a figure cable executives would like to expand.

A
BC has yet to strike a deal to let cable operators offer its hit shows on demand, but CBS and NBC both signed deals this year with Comcast Corp. to offer replays of hit shows for 99 cents. Time Warner Cable also offered paid on-demand replays of college basketball games from CBS last month.

Comcast is the dominant cable provider for St. Paul and most of the Twin Cities metro area; Time Warner serves Minneapolis.

Cable executives say their efforts to date to get viewers back to the couch with key services like on-demand viewing have had promising results, but they say there is more to be done.

Marvin Davis, the head of marketing for Comcast, says cable companies are working to get more data to advertisers on viewership of on-demand shows, and Ryan O'Hara, the president of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.'s TV Guide Channel, says on-screen guides need to get "a lot better."

Cable companies also are hopeful about signing up more customers for digital video recorders, which gives the companies income from monthly fees. Cablevision Systems Corp. says it will try out a next-generation version of DVRs that run off a network instead of from expensive set-top boxes equipped with hard drives.

But there too, obstacles remain. Programmers, for one, are concerned that they may not be compensated for extra uses of their shows. Geraldine Laybourne, chief executive of Oxygen Media Corp., told reporters Sunday there were "gigantic" copyright issues with network DVRs.

In other efforts to offer consumers more flexibility, Time Warner Cable is running a pilot program in Columbia, S.C., that allows viewers to restart many programs from the beginning. But those replays don't let you skip through the ads, allaying fears from advertisers.

Peter Stern, senior vice president of strategic planning at Time Warner Cable, says consumer satisfaction with the start-over service is "off the charts." Time Warner hopes to offer it in another seven or eight markets by the end of the year.

But in that case too, cable operators still have work ahead of them convince networks to climb on board. Only NBC, PBS and the WB — which is owned by Time Warner — agreed to participate in the Columbia program.

Networks are still working out concerns among affiliates and advertisers that the extra availability of the shows could siphon away viewers from lucrative prime time advertising slots. Davis says talks with programmers are "getting better," however. "We've got to continue to make the case that this can be good for all of us."

Meantime, cable programmers also are feeling pressure as time-shifting devices like DVRs liberate consumers from having to watch whatever happens to be on at that moment.

John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications Inc., says that newly empowered TV consumers will drive networks to improve their offerings, putting a "great squeeze" on "marginal quality content."

"They're in control now," he said.

http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/twin....htm?source=rss&channel=twincities_technology
 

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