Putting Best Features Forward

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New York— If a rare meeting of executives from Verizon Communications Inc., DirecTV Inc. and Time Warner Cable serves as a guide, the battle to draw viewers to multichannel video services will be won with the rollout of advanced products, ranging from time-shifted programming services to portable media players.

“Time Warner Cable and the rest of the cable industry has been around for a long time and we’ve been a little slow to develop and innovate our exciting products,” Time Warner general counsel Melinda Witmer said at a Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing New York panel session last Wednesday, where she was joined by executives from Verizon, DirecTV and ESPN.

“I want to thank and welcome our co-panelists today and the companies they represent, because I think they’ve done a lot quite frankly to kick us in the pants and drive us along,” Witmer said.

Witmer, who said Time Warner’s mantra today is “technology, smart marketing and serving the customer,” added the MSO’s Columbia, S.C., system will roll out its Start Over time-shifted programming service by the end of September. If Time Warner digital-cable customers miss the beginning of a program, they’ll be able to use the Start Over feature to watch the show from its beginning, as long as they access the show before the scheduled end of the program.

Witmer said Time Warner is still negotiating with broadcast and cable networks to offer Start Over with their programs. The fact that Time Warner will disable the fast-forward feature on programs accessed through Start Over — in order to prevent subscribers from skipping ads — should benefit the networks, she said.

While Time Warner and other operators are spending much of their marketing efforts on pitching video-on-demand programming — a service they claim satellite companies can’t offer — DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. are relying on digital video recorders to offer programs that can be accessed on demand.

Vice president of programming acquisitions Dan Hartman said the new DirecTV DVR, slated to ship next month, will store 160 hours of programming — 60 of which will be set aside for pay movies and other content that DirecTV will market in its own video-on-demand service.

“We’re satisfied that that gets us there,” said Hartman, comparing the DVR-delivered content to the cable industry’s VOD product, which runs off of servers stored at local headends.

Verizon plans to offer its customers advanced set-top boxes for its upcoming Fios TV rollout, including HDTV receivers and DVRs, but the company won’t heavily market the products, said vice president of programming and marketing Terry Denson.

“I do not believe we are competitors,” said Denson, who noted that Verizon would focus more on making new products like DVRs readily available to its customers, rather than pitching them.

Denson also emphasized that Verizon views itself as a distributor. He said that Verizon’s platform could eventually be used by other media and technology players to deliver content to subscribers, including Yahoo! Inc., Microsoft Corp.’s X-Box platform and Sony’s Playstation Portable devices.

The panelists said they also see opportunities in offering customers portable media players.

Hartman said DirecTV will market portable media players “sooner rather than later.”

Time Warner’s Witmer said the MSO “absolutely” believes there are opportunities to deliver content to consumers with mobile phones.

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