Network-based DVR services have been waiting in the wings for years now, but their big debut seems to be only a matter of time now that content rights issues are thawing out and the network architectures are taking shape.
Among the big cable operators in the United States, nDVR will be, when paired with a content delivery network or cloud, one of the legs that TV Everywhere services stand on once it’s enabled.
It’s been several years now since Cablevision was allowed by the courts to fire up its remote storage (RS)-DVR service, but in the meantime, Comcast has conducted an nDVR trial of its own in Augusta, Ga., Time Warner Cable has finished up its own CDN and has elements of nDVR in play with its Start Over and Look Back services, while Charter Communications CEO Tom Rutledge has hinted that his company is interested in deploying its own nDVR service.
All well and good, but unfortunately, all three declined to discuss their respective nDVR plans with CED. There’s a convergence afoot of nDVR, video-on-demand and TV Everywhere services at the headend, and vendors stand at the ready position with their various enabling platforms.
“The interest level has been very, very good,” said Bob Scheffler, vice president of strategic technology at Motorola Home. “I think network DVR is one of the hot topics that everyone wants to understand and hear about, so I think the interest level is very high. There’s been a lot of discussion about the economics and when does it make sense, and kind of clearing up misconceptions about the economy of replacing hard drives in set-top boxes. We see a couple of real drivers around multi-screen and TV Everywhere and how to bring that DVR functionality, not necessarily to replace hard drives in set-top boxes, but actually how to add DVR capability to devices that don’t have a hard drive, so to connected TVs, tablets, phones and those kinds of things.
“Usually, with a customer, it starts out about network DVR, and then this ties to rights questioning, including what can you do in home, out of the home? Meaning does it have to be remote storage DVR, like Cablevision, or is it cloud DVR, which I call the whole world DVR?” Network, or cloud, DVR puts video recordings into the cloud or CDN, which is also where cable operators such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast are putting electronic program guides (EPGs) for faster interface management. In theory, cable operators could cut down on truck rolls and expensive set-top boxes with nDVR services, but the cost of building or renting a cloud could offset those savings.
And nDVR is a service that records a program and stores it in a network for viewing by a large number of subscribers. RS-DVR grants a subscriber the right to record a service and store it, but each user has to have his or her own copy. In essence, RS-DVR is a virtual DVR that has remote storage.
“The way I look at it is network DVR is the total umbrella, but very specific types of rules around network DVR makes it RS-DVR-compliant,” Scheffler said. “I don’t look at them separately. It’s just that there’s a specific set of rules around network DVR that makes it RS-DVR-compliant.”
Motorola’s Medios platform blends together various elements, such as control plane and policy management, to enable nDVR services.
In theory, cable operators can reduce customer churn by offering a sticky nDVR service to subscribers.
On the other end, subscribers can watch stored content on PCs, iOS, Android and other devices anywhere and anytime. On top of those opportunities sits targeted advertising, which would bring incremental revenue to cable operators and please programmers with the Internet-like reporting metrics.
You gotta fight for your nDVR rights
When it comes to nDVR, the elephant in the room has been getting content licensing agreements from content owners and programmers.
Comcast’s multi-platform deal with Fox Networks included granting multi-platform rights to Fox’s video content, which was further proof that rights issues are picking up speed between cable operators and programmers.
“I think we’re in a really interesting place around content rights now because of the TV Anywhere concept of: ‘How do I get all of the content everywhere?’ And I think there’s a flurry of activity where people are negotiating broad rights to be able to deliver content to many different platforms and to have it stored in many different locations, including in the cloud,” said Joshua Danovitz, vice president and general manager of international at TiVo. “So the lines of where you can put something I think are being blurred.
The idea that a piece of content is licensed for a specific individual seems to continue to be rather consistent.”
Danovitz said having content rights could drive technological innovations, such as the BBC’s popular iPlayer. Conrad Clemson, director of strategy and business development for Cisco's Service Provider Video Technology Group, said content rights are incredibly complicated, but some areas, such as Europe, are further along than North America.
So while content rights for nDVR are thawing, it will take a while for the floodgates to open.
“There seems to be some confusion around that,” Motorola’s Scheffler said. “In my opinion, it’s not going to be a switch that gets turned on or off and everything switches to the other. It’s going to be a blend for years. Some channels won’t give the rights, so the only way to do it is RS-DVR using the copyright law and fair use doctrine as kind of the cover for it. But other channels can greatly benefit from de-linearizing their video and just make it live TV converted to VOD. So for some channels and some services, you’re going to be able to do a common copy or shared copy across the big pool of subscribers and proactively record, even if it wasn’t requested.
“I think it’s going to be a several-year road here, where you slowly see this opening up channel by channel, and then in some cases within a channel during very specific times of day. Maybe late night you can record a common shared copy, but maybe primetime you can’t. Certainly with live sports, you can’t because there are lots of people in the food chain for who gets paid with big, major sporting events.”
Once the rights are secured, Buckeye CableSystem CTO Joe Jensen said the nDVR service needs to mirror the home DVR service.
“Once you’ve got the rights identified and what constraints you have almost on a per-channel basis, you now have to look at the architecture and understand how you are going to be delivering the content,” Jensen said. “Where should you have your primary storage? Where do you want to place your caching in order to optimize your network and still make it close enough to the customer that you have good control as you move down the food chain? You need to consider how you handle advertising and ad insertion.
If that’s an option, do we have those rights, and when will we have an efficient platform that will allows us to insert fresh ads in anything past day three potentially? “There’s authentication that needs to be brought in, and is that dealt with on a regional basis? How do you now manage to communicate in real time with your billing and back office systems to make sure that all of these things are legitimately delivered to customers? We’re still a ways away from getting all of that taken care of, too.”
Vendors take to the field, labs
On the vendor front, Envivio’s Halo network media processor has been deployed in an nDVR setting in Europe and is in trials with two top 10 MSOs in the United States.
Arnaud Perrier, vice president of solutions at Envivio, said that in regard to nDVR, Halo was designed to work with multiple copies, which includes a unique copy stored per user, or with a shared copy in storage, including individual playlists, depending on the legal environment.
“In either case, we can scale it for millions of simultaneous users, which is one of the main challenges for MSOs,” Perrier said.
Perrier said that cable operators need to provide parity between the nDVR services on companion screens and what consumers are used to seeing on their TV screens.
“From my perspective, you really need to understand how you want to, from a user interface and user experience perspective, present VOD versus network DVR and how you can come as close as possible to the experience that a customer has with a customer-controlled DVR,” Jensen said. “You also now need to look at blending together TV Everywhere, VOD and network DVR functionality on a consistent user interface that allows a customer to do search and discovery and find the assets that they want.”
Cisco introduced its Videoscape Unity platform at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, while Motorola touted its Medios platform in Las Vegas. Both can enable end-to-end nDVR services or can be used in a modular approach.
“The key is that we really have to drive complete services,” Cisco’s Clemson said.
“At Cisco, we think a network DVR service – where the idea is you can record from anywhere on your iPad, on your PC or on your set-top box, and then stream it anywhere – is a really compelling service.”