For cable operators, the remote control is growing beyond its electronic roots as hardware used for channel surfing.
With manufacturers developing new high-end remote controls that contain liquid crystal displays designed to help viewers navigate digital video recorders, linear cable networks and on-demand content, cable operators are looking at the device as a mean to attract and retain premium customers.
"You spend billions of dollars building plant, building programming and everything else, but the only thing subscribers actually come into contact with is in fact the remote control," said Universal Remote Control Inc. CEO John Davis, whose company is pitching cable operators a line of high-end remotes.
Some MSOs have asked manufacturers to design remotes that would help drive traffic to particular channels or services. The remote control for Cablevision System Corp.'s iO: Interactive Optimum service, for example, has an iO button that flashes when subscribers touch any other button on the remote control.
Time Warner Cable's Albany, N.Y., division, which is talking to Harrison, N.Y.-based Universal Remote about offering its subscribers new remotes that contain liquid crystal displays, is also considering designating buttons on its remote controls that would take subscribers directly to its local news channel. Division president Steve Pagano said another button may push subscribers directly to Time Warner's high-definition tier.
The driving factor behind the rollout of the new remotes is to make the channel-surfing experience easier for the subscriber, Pagano said. "We've got hundreds of channels, SVOD, VOD and DVR [applications], but I think a lot of people don't really see the benefit of it because they don't know how to use it," he said. "Products like the LCD will go a long way to helping the consumer get the most out of these products."
Within the next 30 to 60 days, the Albany system expects to offer subscribers customized remote controls containing LCD displays, and the remotes would be pre-programmed to the lineup on the Albany system. Pagano said Time Warner Cable will likely direct its customers to retailers in the market that will stock the remotes, and the system may offer subscribers discounts on the devices.
Pricing hasn't been set for the Albany offer, but the remotes will likely cost more than $100 apiece. Universal Remote's new "Customizer" remote, which allows users to control up to 15 devices such as DVD players and home-theater systems, retails for $200.
Universal Remote's customers include Time Warner, Cablevision, Charter Communications Inc., DirecTV Inc. and Cablevision's new Voom satellite service.
In addition to the Albany division, Time Warner Cable's New York City division is also talking to Universal Remote about offering new LCD-display universal remotes to its customers. The remotes, which would be distributed at Time Warner's customer service center on 23rd Street in Manhattan, would be "more customizable for AV fanatics," said Bob Watson, vice president of programming and new business development for the New York system.
Watson said Time Warner views the new high-end remotes as more of a retention tool than a revenue generator for the system.
Davis said Universal Remote is also talking to Charter about offering its subscribers the company's retail line of remote controls.
Universal Remote competes with Cypress, Calif.-based Universal Electronics Inc., which distributes remote controls to about 250 cable systems owned by Comcast, Charter, Time Warner Cable, and other operators, and it is the sole remote vendor for Cox Communications Inc.
UEI also has a new LCD-display remote called the Kameleon C6 that it is pitching to cable operators, which can offer the remotes to high-end customers who subscribe to products like HDTV and VOD. UEI said Time Warner offers the Kameleon remote as an incentive to customers on its Harlingen, Texas, system, while Bresnan Communications Inc. sells the remotes, which retail for $79 to $89, to its customers in Montana.
While the new remotes may appease tech-savvy customers, operators are also looking to use the devices to drive consumers to premium on-demand content and other pay services. Cablevision designed its iO remote internally, asking Universal Remote to make the flashing iO button a centerpiece on the device.
Cablevision senior vice president of digital and video product management Kristin Dolan wasn't available for an interview. But in a prepared statement, she said, "We believe the customized iO button on our remote controls encourages viewers to explore the user interface which exposes them to the advanced products and services offered by iO."