After several delays, Cablevision Systems Corp. launched its digital-cable package, branded "iO: Interactive Optimum," to about 500,000 Long Island, N.Y., homes on Friday. Cablevision is the last major MSO to deploy a digital product, but its package — which includes several interactive-television services — is one of the most ambitious to date.
In addition to about 20 new digital-basic channels, the MSO will pitch its subscribers on-demand content developed by its Sterling Digital division, ITV services and about 90 video-on-demand movie titles.
But executives said most of the operator's 3 million New York cluster subscribers won't be offered the package until next year, and several advanced features — such as personal video recording and telephony — also won't be available until 2002.
Cable networks have been waiting for this launch for a long while. Basic-cable programmers that made the digital lineup include Oxygen, TechTV, Hallmark Channel, Bloomberg Television, Toon Disney and BET on Jazz.
Fox Cable Networks Group cut a deal to include National Geographic Channel, Fox Movie Channel and Fox Sports World in iO. The company paid Cablevision launch support fees in exchange for NGC distribution, Fox Cable Networks Group executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Lindsay Gardner said.
Cablevision will carry five digital channels from Discovery Communications Inc.: Discovery Science Channel, Discovery Civilization Channel, Discovery Kids, Discovery Wings Channel and Discovery Home & Leisure Channel.
For Oxygen, the arrangement gives it distribution on one of the last major New York MSOs with which it hadn't done a deal.
"It gives us an entrée into the New York market," said Oxygen senior vice president of affiliate sales Mary Murano, who also cut a deal earlier this year for a spot on Time Warner Cable's New York City digital lineup.
The deal is noteworthy for Oxygen, considering that its direct competitor — WE: Women's Entertainment — is owned by Cablevision's Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. unit.
The MSO also picked up The Biography Channel and History Channel International from A&E Television Networks; ESPNews and ESPN Classic; and C-SPAN 3. American Catholic — a digital-programming service developed by Sterling Digital — will be included in a "Mag Rack" section of on-demand content.
Additional niche services offered in the Mag Rack are titled Motorcycle Freedom, Wine World, Classic Cars, BirdSight, Maximum Science, Photography Close Up, Bridal, Club Vegetarian and Natural Health.
Subscribers will also have access to 15 premium multiplex channels from Home Box Office, Showtime Networks Inc., Starz Encore Group LLC and Cinemax, as well as 45 digital-music channels from Music Choice.
Cablevision plans to demonstrate the set-tops at a handful of its The Wiz retail outlets.
Senior vice president of consumer-product management Pat Falese said the MSO hopes to sell the package to 50,000 subscribers by the end of the year.
That's a sharp drop from predictions made last year, when Cablevision said it would distribute 500,000 digital boxes in 2001. In February, Cablevision — which had originally expected to deploy the set-tops last December — said it would delay the launch until September.
Many cable operators have had difficulty in reaching VOD-output deals with the Hollywood studios. Falese said the MSO is in negotiations with the studios, but declined to name any companies the operator may have reached agreements with.
Cablevision will charge iO subscribers $29.95 per month for the package, or $19.95 per month for the first year of the service if they sign up before the end of 2001.
Those monthly fees are in addition to its $13.99 package of basic over-the-air channels or the $37.73 "Family" expanded-basic package.
The iO package includes several interactive services, including Metro Weather Center, which offers weather maps and radar images, as well as on-demand information on fashion, restaurants and art events from MetroTV Plus.
SOME NEW ANGLES
Subscribers will be able to control camera angles during some Madison Square Garden Network telecasts with MSG Game Director, and PhotoNetTV will allow subscribers to create slide shows using personal photos on the television screen.
Cablevision will debut the MSG Game Director during a Sept. 30 New York Rangers hockey game, a spokeswoman said. The MSO will offer the service during all home-game telecasts of the National Hockey League's New York Rangers, the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks and the Women's National Basketball Association's New York Liberty, she added.
Cablevision will offer interactive versions of PBS's Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
and Zoom. The MSO will also offer interactive programming from its MuchMusic USA and News 12 Long Island programming services.
Interactive games, including trivia and blackjack, will be branded "Playjam."
Cablevision — which developed its own simple interactive program guide — will also offer subscribers an electronic-mail service that can be accessed via the television and a remote control.
Cablevision will also offer interactive content from Rainbow's AMC, Oxygen, Bravo and WE networks. And Oxygen is supplying a virtual channel for the iO package.
Oxygen's virtual channel will offer on-demand video clips, ranging from two to seven minutes, on financing, parenting, health and other topics, said Sharleen Smith, vice president of Oyxgen's Convergence Lab.