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Capital Currents - Skipping commercials

Thu, 08/16/2012 - 12:59am
Jeffrey Krauss, president of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Measures and countermeasures.

Jeffrey KraussSeveral news items recently made me think about the technology involved with skipping commercials. Dish Network announced a service called Auto Hop, implemented by its DVR. Then I read about a patent awarded to Time Warner Cable engineer Chuck Hasek that provides a method for disabling the ability of a DVR to fast-forward over commercials. I was reminded of police radar, which was countered by radar detectors and illegal radar jammers, and then came laser speed guns … measures and countermeasures.

Anyway, I took a look at Auto Hop to try to figure out the underlying technology. Auto Hop is available to Dish subscribers that have a DVR they call the Hopper. According to Dish: “Auto Hop is an extension of the Hopper's PrimeTime Anytime capability, the exclusive feature that allows viewers, with one click, to record all of the primetime TV programming on ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in HD. A viewer can watch a show with the Auto Hop option commercial-free starting at 1 a.m. ET after a show has been recorded to the Hopper's PrimeTime Anytime library. Prior to that, the Hopper's 30-second ‘hop forward’ feature continues to work for same-day viewing.”

How does this work? Well, the 1 a.m. start time is certainly a clue. It must be that Dish downloads a file that contains the start and stop time of each primetime commercial aired by the four networks. So when the Hopper DVR plays back a primetime program, it can skip over the commercials and know when to resume displaying the program.

But how is that file of start/stop times created? Well, several approaches come to mind. One of my colleagues suggested giving “a minimum wage intern a watch and a pad of paper to record start/stop times.” But that’s sooooo analog.

Did you ever notice that when the program you’re watching goes into a commercial and you change channels, all of the other networks are also running commercials? So maybe the ad inserters have a fixed set of timings for inserting commercials. But maybe not.

A more likely candidate is automatic content recognition (ACR).

I found these quotes describing some approaches that are now available:

  • “IntoNow from Yahoo makes engaging with your friends around your favorite television shows easy and fun. Just tap the green button when you’re watching, and IntoNow will identify the show, right down to the episode.”
  • “The TVplus application can tune in to your favorite shows, and within seconds can recognize and sync your second screen device to the exact moment within the program.”
  • “Umami TV for iPad automatically recognizes live or time-shifted programming across dozens of channels using proprietary audio fingerprinting technology.”
  • “Available for Android, Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, Viggle automatically identifies the television shows its users are watching and awards them points when they check in.”

And then there is Civolution, which monitors TV broadcasts for advertisers to verify not only that ads were aired, but that the full 30 seconds were aired.

According to some reports I’ve read, they all seem to work pretty well. So that’s my guess about how Dish generates the file of commercial start/stop times: It uses some version of ACR, along with a library of commercials.

One thing that Dish does not do, so far as I can tell, is modify the recorded programs to actually delete the commercials. That’s probably a significant issue when the legal question of copyright infringement arises. But you can never tell about things like that.

But in my home, we don’t subscribe to Dish, and so we use the traditional way to skip commercials: fast-forwarding. With DVRs, fast-forwarding gives a sequence of still pictures, each displayed long enough so that the viewer can recognize the content. These still pictures are the so-called “I-frames” defined in MPEG-2 coding. The Hasek patent (#8180200) involves the removal of the I-frames, so there are no still pictures to display. Without still pictures, the claim is that the viewer will not know when to stop fast-forwarding.

The “P-frames” and the “B-frames” remain, but most DVRs are not smart enough to recreate I-frames. In fact, most DVRs are not smart enough to display the video at all if the I-frames are removed. If you want to prevent fast-forwarding but want to display the commercial at normal speed, removing the I-frames is a problem. But if the DVR is supplied by the cable operator, it can be made smart enough to recreate the I-frames and play the video. The patent suggests a method called Progressive I-frames or Progressive Video Refresh, which may itself be the subject of a 2006 patent (#7046910) awarded to employees of then-General Instrument Corp.

However, there may be a practical flaw in the Hasek approach. Doesn’t the DVR need to know what content is programming (to permit fast-forwarding) and what content is a commercial (to prevent fast-forwarding)? So the cable operator or programmer must download the times when commercials start and when they end. But wait, isn’t that how Auto Hop works?

Measures and countermeasures – the battle goes on.

Email: jkrauss@krauss.ws

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