For the last two months, several employees of Time Warner Cable's Green Bay, Wisc., operation have been testing a new technology that allows subscribers to view every program available on the cable system in on-demand form.
The project's name, MystroTV, is now widely known. Details are still being kept close to the vest. But some hints to its potential can be found in related Time Warner-held patents.
Developed by Time Warner Inc.'s Interactive Video division, hatched in April 2001 with former Time Warner Cable CEO Joe Collins as chairman and former Time Warner Cable chief technology officer James Chiddix as president, the MystroTV concept is of a networked digital video recording platform.
Few Answers Yet
Sandy Colony, a former Road Runner executive hired to handle public relations for the division, said last week that it was the first time the company had spoken on the record about MystroTV.
"Our goal is to develop a network DVR platform, and how we roll that out and all of that is a question that we would be more comfortable answering in the future," Colony said.
But while Time Warner officials are loath to discuss specifics about MystroTV, the blueprints for some of the new services and products the company could roll out are detailed in patents that it has obtained, including technology it began developing years ago for the since-abandoned Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla.
Patents Time Warner could use for MystroTV cover everything from the architecture for the media servers that store on-demand content at cable headends to ways to entice subscribers to order on-demand programming.
Upselling On Demand
Colony said MystroTV would look to offer subscribers all cable programming on-demand.
But because many Time Warner customers might not subscribe to all of the programming networks that offer on-demand content via MystroTV, Time Warner developed a method of teasing cable subscribers with previews of such content.
A patent that Time Warner obtained in November 2001 details how the company could offer subscribers an interactive interface, from which they could scroll though a list of available on-demand programs.
Subscribers could view 30-second full-motion previews of all of the shows and movies available on the system — but only customers who subscribe to the network from which the show originated could view the full program on-demand, according to the patent.
Time Warner's goal, according to the patent, is to convince subscribers to upgrade to new programming packages.
"The demand-telecasting service distinguishes subscribers from nonsubscribers, and provides an interactive facility for allowing nonsubscribers to subscribe to the system," states the patent, which lists Time Warner vice chairman John Billock as one of the inventors.
Billock was president of Home Box Office's U.S. network group when Time Warner applied for the patent for a "telecasting service for providing video programs on-demand" in 1997.
Billock, through a Time Warner Cable spokesman, declined to discuss the patent or MystroTV.
Other patents obtained by Time Warner address issues such as how the operator would handle demands for VOD programs if the system's resources were constrained because of heavy usage.
A patent Time Warner obtained in October 1998 lays out how its VOD system would initially attempt to deliver a VOD title ordered by a subscriber.
"If the system's resources would be constrained by the transmission of the VOD version, then the invention denies the request for the video-on-demand version, and directs the requesting viewer to view a near video-on-demand version of the particular application," according to the patent.
When subscribers order programming through on-demand systems, there is often a delay — ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes — before the programming appears on their televisions.
In a patent issued in January 2002, Time Warner explains it would mask the delays and supply viewers with something to keep them occupied before the VOD programs begin, such as a scenic picture.
"When interactive television systems experience latency, they must provide entertaining presentations to mask the latency, because these systems are oriented towards entertainment, and therefore must not be static in nature," Time Warner said in the patent.
Simply offering subscribers hundreds of cable programs on demand might not be enough to convince them to watch the programs.
In an invention from Time Warner Cable senior vice president of advanced engineering and subscriber technology Mike Hayashi, Time Warner explains how it could entice subscribers who aren't using the on-demand system by running video promos for the on-demand shows after a predetermined amount of time.
"Interactive systems are useful for those users that will take advantage of them. However, there are those users who will not actively engage their televisions for a number of reasons (such as fear of technology, lack of interest, etc.)," Time Warner writes in the patent.
"In such cases, it would be desirable to entice the viewers to take part in the interactive experience (i.e., to purchase or select the selections provided by the interactive systems)."
While Time Warner incubates MystroTV, the company continues to step up the pace of DVR set-top rollout.
So far, Time Warner — which first tested DVRs in Columbia, S.C., in 2001 — has deployed the technology in 28 of its 31 divisions, and now counts more than 200,000 DVR subscribers, Time Warner Inc. executive vice president and chief financial officer Wayne Pace said at a Merrill Lynch conference in New York last month.
Time Warner also has patents that would allow it to add new features to DVR service.
In a patent the company obtained last year, the operator explains how it could offer subscribers the ability to skip objectionable content in certain shows by reading content tags that programmers would insert.
The catch: Time Warner says the "content control of broadcast programs" system would rely on the cooperation of programmers to insert the tags, and would also require subscribers to delay playing live programming at the start of shows.
"If the objectionable scenes in a motion picture have a total duration of 10 minutes, simply delaying play of the recorded video for at least 10 minutes after the start of its broadcast will allow for seamless play even with filtered out scenes," Time Warner explains in the patent.
In addition to developing a product that it can commercially deploy, one of Time Warner's key challenges in rolling out MystroTV is cutting deals with programmers that allow the MSO to record every cable show and store the programming at cable system headends for on-demand usage.
"Obtaining rights is a critical part of this, so of course that's a parallel activity," said Colony, the MystroTV spokeswoman.
Colony said the company hasn't determined when the technical trial it's running with Time Warner Cable employees in Green Bay will end, and she wouldn't discuss when the company hopes to deploy a commercial product.