Comcast’s On Demand Online trial has approximately 10,000 viewers involved, who are averaging a rather respectable 89 minutes per session, according to Comcast CTO Tony Werner. It’s another indication that viewers’ demand for video on their terms is an accelerating trend that cannot be safely ignored, according to Werner and his fellow panelists at CTAM’s general session Tuesday morning, titled “Cable’s Consumer Product Agenda.”
Werner was joined by Bright House Networks President Nomi Bergman, Fox National Cable Networks President Rich Battista and Time Warner Cable CTO Mike LaJoie for an unusually technology-oriented session for the cable marketing organization. But as session host and CableLabs President Paul Liao said, cable can be more effective when the technologists and marketers let each other know what they’re doing.
The technologies Liao said were on the “near horizon” include high-definition voice and 3-D video. Demonstrations of both technologies were being conducted this week during Cable Connection - Fall.
The panelists agreed that one of the biggest trends today is the continuing developments in on-demand, which is playing itself out in many ways, not only in VOD as we traditionally think of it, but also in DVRs, Start Over, TV Everywhere and other initiatives.
On-demand is at a tipping point, Werner noted. Two-thirds of the time, he said, Comcast’s customers are accessing their DVRs or on-demand content.
Or as LaJoie put it, the key element in the “where I want, how I want, when I want” is the “when.”
When it comes to new on-demand offerings, there’s been tension between programmers and cable systems. Battista on one side and the MSO execs on the other indulged in a bit of sniping that on a conversational level was so relaxed and intermittent it might have been missed. Maybe the panelists were on their best behavior in public; maybe the argument is so old there’s no point in wasting too much heat on it.
Either way, the argument has programmers questioning whether cable operators have the technology to support advanced, measurable and targeted advertising, while operators insist that they do and that the hold-up is programmers’ unwillingness to grant rights to their content.
Battista reiterated that programmers will remain wary of on-demand until operators can prevent viewers from fast-forwarding through commercials, and until they enable dynamic ad insertion, with targeted ads, in a process that can be measured, the way ads on Hulu can be targeted and measured.
On that first measure, Battista himself referred to Cox’s Orange County My Primetime trial, in which Cox disabled the fast-forward function. Consumers did not mind, he noted. (MyPrimetime is Cox’s service to provide broadcast network content on an on-demand basis; it’s been commercially launched in many of its systems already.)
LaJoie noted that viewers cannot fast-forward on Start Over, nor can they on the most popular Web-based venue, Hulu.
LaJoie also noted that cable has been able to do ad insertion in VOD for a long time. The biggest hurdles, he said later in the panel, are the business issues – securing the rights from programmers.
Bergman and Werner both echoed that comment later on, the former citing the inability to secure rights to enough content as a factor contributing to the failure of the Maestro concept (a full on-demand ecosystem, elements of which were repurposed to create the Start Over system), the latter citing that inability as one factor hindering the adoption of DVR technology right now.
The panelists also stressed the importance of the user interface, citing Apple’s iPod and Hulu/Fancast as prime examples of how a simple, easy-to-use interface is an essential element to a successful product. One of the challenges there, said Bergman, is that while UI’s are becoming easier to use, “in the back end, everything is getting more complex.” Content management is going to be a key issue.
Werner later suggested that network DVR is where all operators want to go, and physical DVRs may eventually be phased out. There are several reasons why that will take time, including the need for more bandwidth – and the inability to secure content rights.
LaJoie noted another challenge is moving applications and content across platforms. His example was searching for content on a laptop, then arranging via the laptop to show the video in the living room or bedroom.
“I can do that on Netflix,” Battista interjected.
“I don’t do that on Netflix,” LaJoie shot back.
The conversation turned to EBIF. Werner said Comcast is using it to support Caller ID on TV and plans to use it to extend the functionality of its program guide (Werner: “We’re writing what we hope will be our last native guide.”), interactive applications and widgets. Bergman reminded that Bright House is using EBIF for a polling/voting application on its news channels.
He described EBIF as “nascent,” but said that with platforms like EBIF and tru2way now in place, people can expect the introduction of new features and applications to accelerate over the next four or five years.
Moderator Molly Wood, executive editor of CNETTV.com, wrapped the panel asking how cable executives can make decisions today with so many things going on.
Bergman noted that the question was circulated among the panelists so they could prepare an answer. “I was traveling with my father, and I asked him how we would answer that question, and he said, ‘Flip a coin.’”
Werner cited using consumer research and relying on smart technologists and the good intuition of Comcast executives.
LaJoie said, “I call Tony.”
“And then he does the opposite,” Werner shot back.