Time Warner Starts Over with Network DVR Service (1 Viewer)

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New DVR-Lite Service Aims to Avoid Pitfalls That Doomed Mystro TV

Despite its previous failure with a network-based digital video recorder (DVR) service, Time Warner Cable is starting over. Now the big question is whether cable viewers will bite this time around.

North America's second largest MSO began rolling out a refurbished version of its prized network DVR concept in a pilot market two months ago. Aptly called "Start Over," the new software-driven, "DVR-lite" service is actually a cross between a DVR and video-on-demand (VOD) product. It enables digital cable subscribers to restart specially "enabled" shows in progress without any advance planning or new home recording gear, just by pressing the "select" button on their cable remotes. Viewers can also pause and rewind shows, just as they could with DVRs. However, they cannot fast forward or skip commercials.

Time Warner introduced Start Over after jettisoning its earlier, more ambitious network DVR project, known as "Mystro TV." Under that high-profile project, launched in 2002, the MSO sought to make its entire program lineup available on-demand to digital cable subscribers for up to two weeks at a time. But the company was forced to largely abandon that effort in late 2003 because of piracy and economic concerns of Hollywood TV producers and other content copyright owners.

Seeking to placate jittery TV programmers and advertisers, Time Warner has now scaled back the grand Mystro TV concept considerably. Rather than offer all TV programs on-demand for a long stretch of time, Start Over makes just select shows available and only during their normal broadcast viewing time. Once that viewing window ends, the show immediately disappears from the video server where it's been stored.

"As part of Time Warner Inc., we understand the importance of protecting content rights," Time Warner Cable Chairman & CEO Glenn Britt said in a prepared statement. He argued that "the functionality inherent in Start Over provides our partners with that protection."

Also, unlike the envisioned Mystro TV service, Start Over doesn't let viewers merrily fast-forward through annoying commercials. Instead, in a key distinction from true DVRs, the free service replays the program in its entirety, with all of the commercials in their proper order. Each commercial runs uninterrupted.

"With Start Over, viewers will never miss the beginning of desired programming ever again, and they will be less inclined to switch channels to another program," said Russell Booth, interactive media director for MediaCom, a large advertising and media buying agency. "Start Over should attract a larger cumulative audience for the shows we sponsor."

Despite these limitations that make Start Over something less than a true DVR product, Time Warner executives are betting that the new time-shifting service will appeal to cable subscribers because it's free and doesn't require additional recording equipment to be installed in the home. Company officials also believe that Start Over could prove popular with customers because it doesn't require them to program their TiVos or other DVRs in advance. Also, the scaled-back offering may ease programmer fears about network DVR services, paving the way for a more expansive Mystro-like service in the future.

"It's actually an extension of live TV," said a Time Warner spokesman. "What we're finding is that even people with DVRs are using it." He said the MSO hopes to disclose initial usage data soon.

Finally, Time Warner executives are counting on Start Over to help drive the company's digital penetration rates higher, just as the rollouts of DVRs and high-definition TV (HDTV) service have done in recent years. The MSO closed the third quarter with 5.2 million digital cable subscribers, after gaining a robust 149,000 digital customers in the summer period. Digital subscribers now make up 47.6% of Time Warner's base of 10.9 million cable customers.

Determined to get it right this time, Time Warner introduced Start Over to 10,000 digital cable customers in Irmo, SC -- part of the MSO's large Columbia, SC region -- on Halloween. The service features programming from 60 broadcast and cable networks, including channels owned by Time Warner, News Corp., NBC Universal, Scripps Networks and Viacom's cable division. The lineup of available networks includes NBC, the local NBC and WB Network stations, Animal Planet, Bravo, Cartoon Network, CNBC, CNN, Comedy Central, Food Network, Fox News, FX, Golf Channel, HGTV, HBO, MSNBC, MTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon, TNT and Travel Channel, among others.

The MSO is relying on on-demand technology from Concurrent Computer Corp. to help run Start Over. Concurrent, which also supplied the technology for Time Warner's launch of subscription VOD in Columbia more than four years ago, stores the programming on one of its five "Real-Time Catcher" video servers in the Columbia area for fast playback.

Time Warner is also using BigBand Networks' Broadband Multimedia Router (BMR) to clean up the digital signals that the cable operator receives from the participating programmers. The BigBand BMR sends the encoded signals to a Mystro video server, which adds the instructions on which network shows can be used for the service. The Mystro server then passes on the signals to the Concurrent server for storage until viewers request their programs.

With Start Over now available to at least 25,000 digital cable subscribers in the Columbia area, plans call for expanding its availability to all 137,000 digital cable homes throughout the Columbia region over the next few months. Time Warner then aims to launch the service in several more, still undisclosed markets later in 2006. Plans also call for expanding the number of Start Over-enabled programs.

The Start Over rollout comes as Time Warner continues to promote its regular DVR service heavily. The MSO ended the third quarter with 1.3 million DVR subscribers, after netting 134,000 customers during the summer period. DVR users now make up nearly one-quarter, or about 24%, of the company's growing digital video base.

http://www.cabledatacomnews.com/jan06/jan06-3.html
 

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