The video-on-demand services proffered by many operators have been oft-maligned as hard to navigate — and basically impossible to search.
With thousands of titles, how is a cable subscriber expected to pick one out of the haystack?
Now, SeaChange International is tackling this problem, with a new offering the company says will let viewers personalize their on-demand experience and, ultimately should, yield higher revenues from cable's VOD services.
SeaChange Affinity, to be available this fall, provides a Web portal to let subscribers browse and rate VOD content, get recommendations based on their preferences and set up a queue of titles they'd like to watch, a la Netflix.
A user's selections are then transmitted to the back-end VOD system, where a subscriber accesses the content via a “My Favorites” folder in the menu.
On the Affinity portal, customers can set up buddy lists to be able to share their favorites with friends. And the system will provide a hook to Facebook, to let Affinity users publish their VOD picks on the popular social-networking site.
“The television has to become more Web-like in its understanding of you as a viewer,” said Alan Hoff, senior director of product marketing at SeaChange. “Just listing content doesn't drive up usage of VOD.”
Hoff pointed out that 60% of the new movies Netflix customers add to their queues are based on recommendations provided on the site.
Affinity, by providing similar features for VOD, “gives cable customers another reason to stay on the farm,” he said.
The software will run on the Axiom On Demand 5.0 platform, the next version of SeaChange's VOD-management system. The new version of Axiom also includes the AdPulse feature for dynamic insertion of on-demand advertising.
SeaChange said operators can either use the Affinity name or put their own branding on the service. Initially, the system will support a single Affinity account per subscriber, Hoff said, although he said a future version may add support for multiple users per household.
The approach is bound to help increase VOD usage, said SNL Kagan senior analyst Ian Olgeirson.
“The VOD interface has got to improve, if cable wants VOD to migrate from being something that's sort of nice to have to something that's integral to daily usage,” he said.
Still, Affinity requires “getting off the couch” to use a PC to discover and organize on-demand content, Olgeirson noted. While that might work for movies and “appointment viewing” programming, he said, it won't be effective for someone just flipping to the on-demand service hoping to find something to watch.
DOING 'START OVER'
SeaChange also is taking a page out of Time Warner Cable's playbook, with plans to introduce a new feature to deliver Start Over-style capabilities via its VOD platform.
The ReStart TV application — like Time Warner Cable's pioneering service — will let viewers pause and rewind selected shows (but not fast-forward through them), contingent on an operator's rights to do so as negotiated with a programmer.
“It's simple, in a VOD-like manner,” Hoff said. “It's where cable subscribers expect their provider to be.”
SeaChange expects ReStart TV to ship at the end of June. Hoff said besides running on SeaChange VOD servers, the application is also being tested with Motorola.
In addition, the company expects to announce VOD Now, an entry-level platform designed for cable and telco operators with fewer than 20,000 subscribers. The system can provide as few as 50 simultaneous streams or up to 1,400.
SeaChange has partnered with TVN Entertainment, which will offer small operators the “VOD Complete” package, with up to 8,000 hours of programming.