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Cablevision network-DVR will test Betamax ruling

Mon, 03/27/2006 - 6:44am
Jeff Baumgartner, CED

Cablevision Systems Corp. will put the Sony Betamax copyright ruling to the test in the second quarter when it launches a technical trial in Long Island that enables customers to record programs on dedicated space on the operator's network-based video servers.

The remote-storage digital video recorder (RS-DVR), as Cablevision calls it, will turn digital set-tops without on-board hard drives into "virtual" DVRs. Initially, Cablevision will offer it to fewer than 1,000 "friendlies."

The RS-DVR system that Cablevision will test will provide each customer with 80 gigabytes of dedicated, rented space on a network server. The system, which replicates a two-tuner DVR, will support recordings in both standard- and high-definition format.

The interface consumers see and use for the RS-DVR essentially parallels the traditional DVR environment.

"It's going to function in every respect like a DVR. From a consumer perspective, it is a DVR," Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Tom Rutledge told CED.

That means if a customer requests to record The Sopranos, an individual copy of the show will be recorded and placed on his or her rented portion of the server farm. If 100 customers request to copy The Sopranos, the system will make 100 individual recordings.

Because the RS-DVR service is designed to mimic the DVR, that also means, presumably, that customers can also fast-forward through advertisements as they would with any DVR. Time Warner Cable has taken a different approach with "Start Over," a service that allows customers to restart selected shows that are already in progress. Among the differences, Time Warner does not allow customers to fast-forward Start Over programs. Additionally, Time Warner has taken the extra step of securing copyright clearance for Start Over shows. Another key difference: Time Warner Cable, not the customer, is the one doing the recording.

Cablevision, however, is interpreting Sony Betamax to mean that it is perfectly legal for consumers to record shows on their own on home-side hard drives or on rented storage that happens to exist on the operator's network.

Rutledge said Cablevision has held discussions with broadcasters and programmers about the MSO's plans for the RS-DVR. He said generally most of them have been "comfortable" with the idea once they realize it offers functions that are "nothing more" than what is found in a traditional DVR.

Time will tell whether all programmers and studios agree with Cablevision's interpretation that recording something on a hard drive in the home is essentially the same as doing it on a server outside the home. Cablevision, for its part, says it has done its homework and believes the approach is perfectly within the bounds of copyright law.

"We researched the legality [of the service]," Rutledge said. "We think it's fair use under the Betamax case."

Cablevision sells its traditional DVR service for $9.95 per month. "We envision a similar business model for the [RS-DVR], but at probably a lower price point," Rutledge said, pointing to the improved economics of the network-based approach.

In addition to reducing truck rolls, the network-based DVR will also breathe new life into deployed digital set-tops that do not contain hard drives. Rutledge said the "vast majority" of Cablevision's 2 million digital video customers do not have set-tops with on-board DVRs.

Though this approach could answer the copyright question, it may not be the most efficient from a network storage perspective. Industry engineering vet David Large analyzed several network-DVR scenarios in the February issue of CED. Using certain assumptions, a system that takes the "hosted personal space" approach (like the one Cablevision is using) would have to set aside more than eight times the amount of storage versus a "record all" system that allows customers to share access to recorded programs. The "record all" approach, however, may not hold up as well to the copyright precedent set by the Sony Betamax case.

Rutledge said Cablevision will keep a close eye on the service's impact on streaming and storage capacity and scale it so that the MSO has the appropriate "headroom for a quality service."

Cablevision would not announce any specific timeframes for a broader rollout, other than hopes that it will occur sometime later this year.

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