Record This: Viewers Want to Watch Shows

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The “network DVR” is not just a tempest in a storage pot. Sure, it really shouldn’t matter where a consumer stores his or her digital stuff. It could be a pocket drive, a box in the family room, a PC in an office. Or somewhere in the clouds of a communications network.

Or how it gets there. If they’re entitled to make a copy, where it sits should be their choice as well.

That’s the point Cablevision Systems Corp. is making as it prepares this month to test the delivery of a service on its home turf of Long Island, N.Y., that lets its television customers record, store and then play back programs from servers inside its cable network.

The people who make the programs, though, think Cablevision is engaging in unauthorized copying of their works. Cable News Network and Cartoon Network last week became the latest video content producers to sue to block the test.

They say Cablevision first needs a license to use their programming this way. And the cable-systems operator sees no reason to (a) negotiate licenses or (b) share any proceeds. Even if it charges its customers, say, $10 a month for the recording service.

“Revenue sharing presupposes the need for a license, and this is a DVR product for which no license is necessary under established copyright law,” the company stated via e-mail to Multichannel News last week. “There are 12 million DVRs that have already been deployed and are in homes across the country, with no objections on the part of programmers and not a single license in place.”

But the point of technology is not the technology. That’s only a route to the content. In this case, the viewer is expressly saying that he or she wants to watch a specific episode of a particular programmer’s product when he or she presses that record button. He or she is not saying, “Gosh, I want to see how well Cablevision can handle recording.”

Network recording is a “special case” in the evolution of delivering video on demand, said Jeff Walker, senior director of marketing at Motorola’s Connected Home Solutions group. “If you can get what you want when you want it, people tend to do that.’’

And it’s not hard to see how much of a sea change this form of on-demand video could be from what has gone before it.

Right now, by Walker’s calculations, a cable operator typically would have to allot two channels of space on its network to carry programs to customers, from a pre-set library of shows.

That’s in a network where 25% of households have the digital set-top boxes that allow them to pick the videos. And with the assumption that no more than 10% of those households would demand a video at the same time.

But, in a few years, he believes it’s not unreasonable to expect that 75% of the households in that typical network will have digital set-top boxes, that 50% of them may want to playback what they personally recorded at any given time — and that they just as often as not will have recorded high-definition versions of those programs.

All of a sudden, an operator may be filling the equivalent of 73 channels with this stuff. The program guide will show the viewer not just what is on TV at the present time or what you have recorded that you can play back at any time, but what programs appeared some time in the recent past that you can still record, and play back later.

This will be true any-time television.

The trick won’t be to keep the network up to snuff, though. Cablevision “wouldn’t be pursuing this product if we weren’t confident in the integrity and capacity of our network to support it.”

The trick will be to keep the viewers happy. With (all the) programming they want to (record and) see, at any time.

Kicking over — for example — $2 out of every $10 for “time-shifting” is not going to ruin the economics of network recording. And given the technology, you’ll be able to know exactly which programs have been stored by how many customers. Meaning: Split the pot only with those programs that customers actually demand. And in exact proportion to how much they are demanded.

More importantly, you start figuring out the right formula for getting programmers to help create services that set your systems apart, in an increasingly fractured world of content ordered from keyboards and pads.

Because you only ever know exactly what the customer wants when your buttons get pushed.

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