Going direct to disk: Cable's ace in the hole?
Among the more interesting demonstrations at the recent TelecomNEXT show in Las Vegas, Scientific Atlanta had one that showed how cable operators could work their way into the DVD retail food chain.
Though only "conceptual" in design, SA's "direct to disk" demo provided a glimpse at how a cable set-top outfitted with a DVR, DVD burner and special navigational software could give operators (with studio consent) the ability to download movies to the set-top's hard drive, and then (for a price) allow the consumer to transfer the title to a blank, writable DVD.
This project has only grown in competitive importance in the wake of new "download-to-own" (DTO) services unveiled just this week by Movielink and CinemaNow. In the case of Movielink's stab at DTO, the company will not only sell titles, but sell some (starting today with Universal's "Brokeback Mountain") in the DVD release window.
In an interesting twist, Movielink will allow customers to burn purchased films to a DVD for "backup." Those DVDs, however, won't play on standard DVD players, but via the Windows Media Format on the PC to which the title was originally downloaded. An okay situation, but far from ideal.
But such won't be the case forever. In a call with reporters Monday, Movielink CEO Jim Ramo said the process of burning content to regular DVDs has already begun. But that process involved transcoding content to DVD-compatible formats and enhancing the security systems. "There's a lot of work to be done," Ramo conceded.
Let's shift back to the SA demo, which could provide a way for studios to bridge this gap, and do so securely. If you didn't see it at TelecomNEXT, be sure to stop by SA booth at next week's National Show in Atlanta. They'll be showing it offer there, as well.
While the "direct to disk" idea is merely conceptual at this point, it is clearly a product within SA's sights. It already offers the Model MCP-100, a set-top that includes a DVR and a DVD recorder/player. With Linksys and SA now part of the Cisco Systems corporate family, it doesn't take much of a technical leap to add home networking to the mix.
One of the big questions, of course, is digital rights management (DRM) - an element that studios and programmers will insist upon. Because "direct to disk" is still in its technical infancy, SA officials weren't ready to discuss which DRM systems it might support. Then there's the whole business end to tend to.
But the cable industry is clearly thinking about such things. Recall, CableLabs just selected some technology from EnCentrus that can apply DRM rules ("copy once" or "copy freely," et al) to content destined for digital video recorders. I'll have much more on EnCentrus and its technology in next week's issue.
With the moves this week by Movielink and CinemaNow, cable's shift from demo to reality mode probably can't happen a moment too soon.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Editor in Chief, CED magazine and xOD Capsule
M-Card approval could be good for VOD
Set-top-free digital television took a step closer to supporting video-on-demand last month when a multi-stream CableCARD (version 188.8.131.52) from the now hyphen-less Scientific Atlanta became the first to win qualification from CableLabs.
The milestone qualification occurred on March 22, 2006, according to a filing made last week by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The multi-stream CableCARD, also known as the "M-Card," is designed to operate in a single-stream manner with single stream devices (such as unidirectional Plug & Play television sets) or in multi-stream mode when combined with two-way devices. The latter combination will enable future two-way Plug & Play, set-top-free digital TVs to support VOD and other interactive cable services and applications.
Today's installed base of unidirectional CableCARDs (numbering greater than 141,000) do not support VOD, but do allow digital TVs with CableCARD interfaces to display digital cable programming without a set-top.
The evolving Downloadable Conditional Access (DCAS) project is expected to support VOD and other two-way services right off the bat.
Cox taps Ensequence for interactive tools
Cox Communications will accelerate its foray into interactive television (iTV) and enhanced television (ETV) using a set of application development tools from Ensequence.
Under the deal, Cox will use Ensequence's on-Q publishing system to build iTV apps for a range of OCAP (OpenCable Applicaiton Platform) and legacy, pre-OCAP software, including Cox's OnRamp to OCAP platform.
Ensequence VP of Marketing Ashlam Khader said his company won the deal following an RFQ from Cox last year. He noted that Ensequence is supporting a new TVWorks platform that is being desinged to conform with the evolving CableLabs ETV Binary Interchange Fromat (EBIF) specification. The resulting spec will enable operators and programmers to offer bound applications that are synched to the program. The forthcoming, Java-based "user agents" will render the text and accept the ETV signaling on multiple types of set-tops running different types of operating systems.
"ETV BIF is being enlisted…and our tools will be used to work on this platform," Khader said.
Ensequence's support for the CableLabs ETV and OCAP specs were "key" to Cox's decision to use the company's toolset, according to Cox Director of iTV Product Development Vince Groff.
Enhanced apps Ensequence supports include one from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) that provides access to wrestler information and upcoming WWE events that customers can buy with a press of a button.
The WWE app is being planned for an end of the year deployment on OCAP and pre-OCAP systems, Khader explained.
Ensequence, whose licensees and/or partners include BBC, BskyB, MTV, Disney, EchoStar Communications, and Discovery Networks, also expanded its portfolio with on-Q Publish, a suite of software deisgned to help advertisers, programmers and operators update and publish iTV apps for various platforms.
on-Q Publish is a component of the deal Cox just signed with the iTV software firm. In that example, Cox could create a set of templates that local systems could then offer to area advertisers and programmers that are interested in adding interactivity.
Comcast to offer NBC Universal hits on-demand
Beginning in May, Comcast Cable will provide on-demand access to "Battlestar Galactica," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Monk," and other popular shows from the NBC Universal lineup.
In all, NBC Universal will provide Comcast with "select" programming from NBC, USA Network, SCI FI Channel and Bravo. Shows included in the agreement are "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," "The Office," "Las Vegas," "Conviction," "Ghost Hunters," "Celebrity Poker Showdown," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," and "Passions."
NBC's primetime shows will sell for 99 cents each. Late-night and daytime shows will be offered to Comcast digital subs for free. The companies said additional shows from the NBC Universal Cable library will be added later this year.
The deal expands Comcast's VOD access to widely viewed broadcast programming. In January, Comcast cut a deal with CBS to offer episodes of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "NCIS," "Survivor," and "The Amazing Race" via VOD for 99 cents each.
Initially, Comcast has offered those shows on-demand only in markets with CBS owned-and-operated stations. The same will hold true with the new deal with NBC.
Previously, non O&O stations have complained about new distribution methods for television shows, such as the download-to-own video service from Apple iTunes.
TVN, Canadian Cable Systems Alliance notch VOD deal
Following a similar agreement with the National Cable Television Cooperative, TVN Entertainment will get some northern exposure after securing a video-on-demand hunting license with affiliates of The Canadian Cable Systems Alliance (CCSA), a purchasing group for independent cable operators.
CCSA, whose members include more than 85 cable companies that serve about 900,000 Canadian cable subscribers, will have access to a "turnkey" video-on-demand platform from TVN that includes the vendor's ADONISS 2.0 asset management system as well as TVN's menu of on-demand content from Hollywood studios and other sources.
On the content front, TVN said it will craft hybrid licensing/carriage agreements to meet the unique requirements set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). In all, TVN expects to offer more than 2,000 hours of VOD content to CCSA affiliates.
The CCSA includes members such as Access Communications, Arctic Co-operatives Ltd., and EastLink Cable Systems, among several others.
Entone, INS tag-team on VOD
Entone Technologies has inked a deal to support a rollout of video-on-demand (VOD) by Iowa Network Services (INS), a firm that provides network services to 148 independent telcos in the state.
Under the arrangement, Entone will supply its StreamLiner video server, Armada asset manager, and its "Ingest Gateway," which manages the intake of pre-encrypted digital video assets and associated metadata.
Entone noted that its asset management system will automate the distribution of VOD assets from INS' central headend to telco affiliates via the INS fiber backbone.
INS' telco partners provide services to about 500,000 customers.
Akimbo scores HDNet deal
Akimbo Systems has inked an agreement to offer "select" high-definition titles from Mark Cuban's HDNet.
Under the deal, users with the Akimbo Service for Windows XP Media Center Edition will be allowed to download a range of shows from the HDNet library. It marks the first time Akimbo is delivering broadband-delivered HD content for viewing on HD monitors or televisions. Akimbo also markets a broadband-enabled set-top, dubbed the Akimbo Player, that can download and play standard-definition video.
Akimbo's content service sells for $9.99 per month.
Last week a story incorrectly stated that the new "Vegas" SD-DVR from Pace Micro Technology was upgradable to high-definition via an external, plug-in module. The box's port, however, can enable MSOs to expand hard drive space. A corrected version of this story is posted on the Web.
Heard on the net
Burke: Cablevision's nDVR shows promise
Comcast Corp. COO Steve Burke said last week he's sure "the rest of the industry will follow" in the footsteps of Cablevision Systems Corp. if its trial of a network-based digital video recording system "works out."
"It's a very good idea, very well thought through," Burke said at a Bank of America conference, as reported by AP.
Those remarks are pretty close to the ones provided by Comcast Chief Technology Officer David Fellows, in a recent roundtable discussion with CED (see the April issue of CED for an edited transcript).
"My plans are to wish Cablevision luck and to watch them closely," Fellows said on the subject of the nDVR.
Cox CTO Chris Bowick said his company will be paying "very close attention" to Cablevision's approach as well as Time Warner Cable's "Start Over" service, but is focusing on traditional VOD and the multi-room DVR in the nearer-term. "I agree, though, that network-based DVR has got to be on the roadmap over the next several years," he said.
On Command on the block?
On Command, the hotel entertainment unit of Liberty Media Corp. is on the block, according to recent reports.
The Rocky Mountain News, citing a report by Bloomberg News, said the asking price is $500 million for On Command, which supplied movies, games, Internet access, and other services to about 1 million hotel rooms.
Ex-TiVo exec spills some beans on DISH
You might be aware that a big DVR court battle got under way last week in Marshall, Texas, between TiVo Inc. and EchoStar Communications.
TiVo is alleging that EchoStar infringed on TiVo's patent for a "multimedia time warping system"
In early testimony reported by Bloomberg, ex-TiVo CEO Michael Ramsay said his company shared technical details with EchoStar, which, of course, eventually entered the market with its own receiver/DVR.
EchoStar countered that its technology differs in several ways and that DISH's spin on the DVR was built by an internal engineering corp. An EchoStar attorney also produced e-mails of TiVo executives noting that "EchoStar owns its own technology," and that the DBS firm appears to have "a homegrown solution" for the DVR.
If TiVo wins this case, there's belief that other DBS and cable providers could feel the wrath of TiVo's lawyers. But don't expect Comcast Corp. to be among them. Recall, the largest MSO inked a non-exclusive, multi-year deal about a year ago to make a customized version of the TiVo service.
We are making changes and additions (including international deployments) to our
Web-based "living" deployment chart. If you have a new deployment to report for the VOD Scorecard and the Web-based deployment chart, please contact CED Editor Jeff Baumgartner.