A more personalized audio experience from vendor Music Choice — in which digital-cable subscribers can organize their own playlist from the company's collection of 30 around-the-clock music formats — will be introduced in two markets by the end of June.
Assuming all goes well on the technical side, all of Music Choice's 16 million digital-cable users could have the option available free-of-charge by this holiday season.
The feature, known as "My Music Choice," gets its first trial in April at Mediacom Communications Corp.'s system in Moline, Ill.
Two months later, subscribers in Blue Ridge Communications' Palmerton, Pa., system will have their shot.
When the option is selected — by clicking a portion of Music Choice's main video screen with a remote — users can pick up to three music formats at a time and fuse them into a single presentation, with appropriate video screens.
After the formats are selected, the listener can then determine how much or little of each to feature around the clock, and how many or few of the musical categories in each format will be highlighted.
Initially, customers can program and hear up to five fused channels at one time. That number will go up after the rollout becomes national, said Music Choice president and CEO Dave Del Beccaro.
The trick to making this work is storing all 30 formats in video-on-demand servers, along with the screens, so that each customer can access and mix the formats they desire. A SeaChange International VOD server will be used in Moline, while Blue Ridge Communications, owned by Pencor Services Inc., will deploy capacity in its Concurrent Computer-supplied server. Music Choice officials said the option is compatible with most VOD server models.
Music selections will be refreshed each week.
Del Beccaro estimated there are more than 100,000 different personalized format combinations available through the option.
"This is the logical next step for both us and our customers," he said. "Giving people the ability to program their own channels with their musical mix has a lot of appeal, and we've come up with a quick, easy interface to do that."
Del Bacarro is also counting on the format to boost Music Choice's digital-cable universe quickly, so there are enough homes aboard to institute on-screen ads or e-commerce possibilities to drive its revenue stream ahead of rival digital-music provider DMX Music, owned by Liberty Media Corp.
Music Choice is available in about 16 million digital-cable homes, along with 11 million DBS homes.
"We're almost at the point where we can pull together a critical mass for ad sales," Del Beccaro said.
Currently, most of Music Chioce's income is generated from affiliate fees. Last September, the company and Wink Communications Corp, launched a CD-selling interactive channel on DirecTV, but the providers aren't promoting that service much as they work out some start-up kinks.
About 100 Moline homes will be the first in the 24,000-household system to get My Music Choice. John Woods, Mediacom's senior director of advanced consumer products, said the feature should give some lift to digital penetration in Moline, now at around 30 percent.
"We want to leverage our VOD platform with more than just movies and video content. This concept offers a richer music experience," he said.
The Moline system has about 80,000 basic subscribers.
System GM's a fan
In Palmerton, there's a personal reason for accepting the trial. Mark Masenheimer, the system's general manager, already enjoys the ability at work to mix his listening pleasure through the PC with Yahoo! Inc.'s Launch.com service.
"Having this at home would be great," he said. "This should be able to stop me from switching channels" and decrease churn among other digital subs, he said.
In a few weeks, Masenheimer will determine how many of his subscribers will have the option. He declined to disclose the system's digital universe. Of 175,000 overall Blue Ridge subscribers, more than 11,000 take digital services.
When the trials begin, the only way subscribers in both markets will know My Music Choice can be activated is the main screen. That's deliberate, Del Beccaro noted.
"As the first 30 days go, we don't want too many users so that we can take care of any operational glitches. We also want to see how word-of-mouth spreads," he said.
Local promotion will be ramped up as more subscribers are brought aboard.