Columbia, S.C., isn't exactly a major technology center and it couldn't be much further away from TV production capitals like Hollywood. But Time Warner Cable executives believe that's where one of the promising new developments in video-on-demand programming can be found.
Since Halloween 2005, Time Warner's Columbia system, which has about 65,000 digital-cable subscribers, has been testing a new service, “Start Over.” Developed by Time Warner Cable, Start Over allows users who tune in to the middle of a program to start viewing the show from the beginning at the press of a button.
“It's a very exciting application because it enhances and changes the way viewers think about VOD,” Time Warner senior vice president of on-demand product management Robert Benya said. “We normally think of on-demand programming as something that is stored in a library that customers can launch when they want to watch it. This allows customers to turn live TV into VOD and restart a program without having to set a program earlier to record it.”
Consumers seem to agree. More than half of the systems's digital subscribers are restarting over a quarter of a million programs a month.
“It's been almost universally applauded,” said division president Bob Barlow.
One major advantage is that it offers an easy way for consumers to navigate through massive amounts of on-demand programming.
Start Over doesn't allow viewers to fast forward through ads, a feature which has helped recruit programmers to take part in the trial. Two broadcasters, NBC and The WB, took part along with 59 cable networks. More than half of the networks allowed viewers to restart all of their programming; the rest allowed anywhere from 25% to 75% to become part of the system.
Benya stressed that this content could easily be expanded to hundreds of channels as the tool is rolled out in other markets. In upcoming weeks, the operator will start providing the service to the entire state, where it has about 145,000 digital subscribers, and then to 7 or 8 unnamed markets servicing about 1 million digital customers during 2006.
Time Warner Cable has also announced that the South Carolina systems will test another in-house product, “Look Back.” This would allow viewers to watch programs that have already run simply by calling up a menu from the channel. Initial tests will allow viewers to access shows for up to 48 hours but the system could expand to cover an entire week.
VETERAN TESTING GROUND
This isn't the first time that the system has been tapped as a testing ground. Columbia was the first to try out Home Box Office's video-on-demand service and caller ID. “We have a pretty good cross section of demos and a great network,” said Barlow.
Besides Start Over, the system is also beefing up interactive services. It added eBay on TV in April and will launch Sportstracker later this year. Such services are increasingly important for systems operating in an increasingly competitive landscape, Barlow said.
Besides competing with satellite services, Time Warner's South Carolina systems also face overbuilder Knology Inc. in some markets, and a small telco, Horry Telephone Cooperative, that has begun offering video.
“Where we've deployed Start Over, we've seen impressive growth in digital set-top boxes and some positive impact on churn,” vice president of marketing Dan Santelle said.