Rapidly expanding video-on-demand content libraries are pushing the on-screen programming guides now in use to the brink of exhaustion.
Menus designed to display lineups of analog and digital networks and pay-per-view channels were not built to handle VOD systems that store more than 1,000 hours of content for consumers.
That's posing an unprecedented challenge to MSOs and guide vendors, who must create an intuitive and coherent method to display what's available on their robust VOD systems.
Time Warner Cable, which is using embedded guides from Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Pioneer Electronics Corp. for its VOD deployments, is relying on a "channel" or "portal" approach for its early VOD-content displays.
Each subscription VOD service, such as HBO On Demand, is assigned its own channel number. The top hit movies also appear on a separate "channel." Consumers might flip to channel 200 to see HBO, then channel 201 for HBO On Demand.
Comcast — which plans to launch a 1,500-hour VOD service in Philadelphia this fall — will have the most complex rollout to date. It wants to give consumers a variety of ways to access VOD content.
"We have to break it down for them in categories that are understandable," said Comcast executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service David Watson. "We have to make it easy for them to access [content] in multiple ways, not just one. That could come though the channel, the general guide, the menu screen."
Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc. is charged with making those 1,500 hours of programming accessible to consumers, and executives there say familiarity is the key.
"We're trying to create an environment that isn't unique for the user, with common navigation, common purchase control, and common genres," said Gemstar senior vice president and general manager Todd Walker.
The Gemstar software release currently in the field, dubbed "A14," replaces the "PPV" menu icon with a "VOD" bug in VOD-enabled systems.
"That takes you to the VOD menu," Walker said. "It looks like the other IPG screens, with ads, and MSOs can put their brand on it."
That VOD guide screen can display up to five categories, such as a brand-name SVOD service or movie genres like comedy, action or drama. It also displays running times, price, cast information, previews and ordering information.
'A17' IN THE LAB
The next iteration of the VOD software, "A17," is now being tested in Motorola Corp.'s Acadia set-top software integration laboratories, said Walker. It's earmarked to be ready for Comcast and Gemstar's other affiliates this fall.
Gemstar has expanded the VOD menu to handle up to 12 categories, while the number of menus can be extended without limit.
"It was designed primarily to support SVOD," Walker said.
But MSOs might offer plenty of free on-demand categories as well.
The new guide allows operators to display the full breadth of their SVOD content on-screen. Consumers can drill down through HBO's menu to various genres, then to different shows or particular episodes, Walker said.
The A17 release also lets MSOs generate their own video-barker windows, to be used to showcase specific VOD content or the overall service.
The barker is tied to VOD content, so when a subscriber moves to the HBO On Demand category, an HBO promotional spot could appear on the screen. If the subscriber moved to Showtime On Demand, a Showtime SVOD promo could appear, Walker said.
"The barker will be on every screen until you get to an individual title," Walker said.
MSOs are debating how to use the barker, said Walker. Should it be used to promote hit movies and SVOD, which produce revenue, or to highlight free on-demand content, which will be used to drive digital penetration?
Production issues may keep MSOs from using video on the barker channel at launch, said Walker. One question they're asking is "Can I get this produced and out to the field on a weekly basis?" he said.
Another key feature of A17 gives MSOs the ability to create an overarching navigational shell with up to five categories. Those categories could include VOD, regular TV or TV Guide, Walker said. The latter could essentially serve as a home page.
"In Charter's case, it may have the I-channels on it," Walker said.
A17 also allows MSOs to provide impulse SVOD ordering capabilities, similar to impulse ordering of the monthly linear service. The release also allows for taping up to four events per week.
And A17 lets MSOs set up user guides in different languages.
'A20' COMES LATER
But the A20 release, now under development, should be the best of all. "We're trying to figure out what core features to be in the next release," Walker said.
A20 is tentatively set to debut in mid-2003. Among the features under consideration:
- The ability to create submenus within an SVOD service, such as HBO series or documentaries, and placing them on their own channel;
- Providing programmers with the ability to create customized backgrounds and colors for their SVOD or VOD screens;
- Providing variable access to submenus;
- Supporting promotional art for individual movies.
A20 may also allow users to create links to a programmer's SVOD content within linear guides. If a subscriber surfs by the standard Starz channel and finds Pearl Harbor
in mid-movie, for instance, an icon would appear to let them know the movie is available at any time on the SVOD service.
A second area of work focuses on creating searches and sorts across VOD content libraries and linear channel lineups, Walker said.
The metadata specifications under development at Cable Television Laboratories Inc. should help here, Walker said. But those CableLabs specs would only cover VOD content, not linear content.
"The question is, how do we merge these two databases together?" Walker asked.
BOX MAKERS WEIGH IN
Both S-A and Pioneer also are working on guide enhancements.
S-A's XOD or Anything on Demand software is part of its embedded SARA interactive programming guide.
SVOD services, like HBO On Demand, can show up in that guide. Top movies also can be assigned their own "channel" and depicted in the guide alongside linear channel information, said S-A vice president of subscriber systems Bob Van Orden.
Time Warner is looking to create a service-menu screen through which consumers may choose from VOD, SVOD or linear television, Van Orden said. The MSO is using iCONTROL as a marketing moniker for its VOD service.
Van Orden said about half of Time Warner divisions are using the XOD application. Most of those have been installed and many are launched, he said.
Any programmer can place their own logo and branding elements within the application, he said.
MSOs can use XOD to set up free on-demand content in several fashions. Content from individual networks could claim their own channel: Comedy Central might be on channel 44 and Comedy Central VOD on channel 244.
MSOs could also set up FOD by genre, with each being assigned a "channel."
Cox is using a VOD application it built in-house, while Comcast's S-A-based systems are using applications from those sites' server vendors, Van Orden said.
Further XOD software releases will include a more-integrated guide, PVR and service menus, Van Orden said.
Other features would allow the display of promotional art, free previews, searches and links between linear and VOD TV.
Pioneer has shipped 3 million copies of its Passport 2.5 guide software in the U.S. Over the next two to three months, the vendor will upgrade to 3.0, which includes many VOD enhancements, over the next two to three months, said Pioneer Digital Technologies vice president of software engineering Haig Krakirian.
Time Warner has been using Passport 2.5 in its Cincinnati VOD rollout. The software iteration allows VOD vendors to run applications from the Concurrent Computer Corp. server. On-demand content is mapped to specific channels.
"[Version] 3.0 does away with the custom application," Krakirian said. "We're relying on [Time Warner's] ISA [Interactive Services Architecture] to interface with any server and billing system."
Passport 3.0 takes over the user interface, he said. Hit movies can be assigned to individual channels, as can other genres, SVOD services or FOD content.
The new version requires MSOs to install a small server at the headend. VOD information will come through the ISA architecture, Krakirian said, then be passed on to the Passport 3.0 software.