The Nuts and Bolts of TV Anytime

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CBS is letting its shows be delivered “on demand” to Comcast Corp. customers. NBC’s shows will be sent out to DirecTV Inc. subscribers’ digital video recorders.

And Time Warner Cable wants to allow people watching TV via its systems to start that programming over — but not to skip past ads.

The technology behind each service differs slightly, but they’re all trying to deliver one common benefit: to let consumers see programs any time they want, not just when they are scheduled to be shown.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable will use the storage capacity in their networks for providing programs on-demand, in order to host the CBS programming and the Start Over service, respectively.

DirecTV has no central storage facility, so it must use storage found in its new DirecTV Plus digital video recorder for customers to keep the NBC programs they buy for 99 cents each.

Here’s how the different approaches will work.

CBS AND COMCAST

CBS plans to bounce a feed of its on-demand programming off a satellite, hours after the original program airs, to Comcast systems in 17 markets where the network owns TV stations. These include: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Miami, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Sacramento and Green Bay, Wisc.

That feed will contain the national ads that were present in the original broadcast, but no local spots. CBS has not said whether it will use TVN Entertainment Corp. or In Demand to pull together and transport its on-demand programs.

However the shows get there, Comcast will place the files on servers that handle quick-turnaround content, such as NFL On Demand highlights.

Comcast said it expects to have CBS shows available “as early as midnight” on the night each show premieres.

Although Comcast could encode the live signal for those programs in each system in which it originally gets shown, Comcast On Demand vice president Page Thompson said: “Operationally, the easier way was to do a nationwide feed. It ensures consistent quality.”

TIME WARNER CABLE

Encoding for Time Warner Cable’s “Start Over” service occurs as live cable and broadcast network feeds arrive at a headend in Columbia, S.C. Much of the Start Over technology was borrowed from an aborted network digital video recorder project, MystroTV, launched in 2002.

“Mystro had made an investment in time and money in the VOD platform,” said John Callahan, Time Warner’s senior vice president, advanced technology group. “The question was, how do we extend that platform to [deliver] massive downstreaming capability?”

In Columbia, the encoded signals are sent to a Mystro server, where instructions on how to apply business rules are added. For instance, Time Warner Cable does not have Start Over rights for every show on the 60 networks included in the package.

From the Mystro server, the content is sent to the system’s Concurrent Computer Corp. server for storage until a consumer requests a video clip.

The digital signals are sent through BigBand Networks Inc.’s Broadband Multimedia Router, where they are cleaned up. Then, they’re shipped through the Mystro server and onto the Concurrent server.

From day one, the goal was to get the entire encoding, transfer and storage of a signal completed within five seconds, Callahan said.

“The content is decrypted off the satellite, rights are checked for this video segment, then we instruct the server to begin to record and generate’’ the background information on each show, before it is put in the system, he said.

“It’s software-driven and mostly built by TWC,” added Mike LaJoie, the operator’s chief technology officer. “Most of the hard work has been done, and doesn’t involve a lot of capital costs.

“The nature of the technology is that its handles each individual stream on a case-by-case-basis,” said LaJoie. “The complexity is in rights,’’ and in managing the information about what is contained in each file.

In theory, the longest any piece of content is stored is twice as long as its original run. A one-hour TV show that starts at 9 p.m. gets stored immediately, and has to be available at 9:59 p.m. if a consumer hits the Start Over button. By 10:01 p.m., it’s too late, and the 9 p.m. program is no longer available.

The Mystro software does a “sweep” soon after the time period ends, removing the content from the server, just as it removes other VOD content once its availability period ends.

Consumers can pause and rewind the program, but the fast-forward button is disabled, so ads can’t be skipped, Lajoie said.

NBC AND DIRECTV

NBC will ship, over the course of a week, about five hours of programming to DirecTV’s national satellite center. There, it will be automatically downloaded into the new DirecTV Plus DVRs. The digital video recorders go on sale early next year, with each able to store 160 hours of programming.

Subscribers can store 100 hours of whatever they want, DirecTV said. The other 60 hours are reserved for DirecTV downloads, such as the NBC content and other content it is negotiating rights for, according to DirecTV.

Humax Co. Ltd. is making the DirecTV Plus DVR, which is powered by NDS Group plc software, for digital pay-television services. A consumer would pull up a DVR home page to see both what programs they have recorded, plus a Showcase category that will contain the NBC programming. Viewers can then scan the list of downloaded episodes and order any NBC program for 99 cents.

The commercial-free programs remain on the DVR until the next episode of that show airs via broadcast.

This makes the first major download push for DirecTV. Only its “NFL Sunday Ticket” subscribers experienced a previous download service, where two-minute highlight clips from each NFL game are downloaded to their DVRs each Sunday night.

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