As cable operators have realized, the lack of movie studio content deals for on demand is not the only reason the service isn’t the gold mine the industry once envisioned. Turns out, maybe, just maybe, the underwhelming buy rates some operators are seeing may have something to do with the fact that subscribers are having a tough time figuring out how to find and access on-demand content. Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide International have been busy of late figuring out ways to fix that problem and help cable subscribers navigate VOD. A sleepy office park in the tree-filled Main Line community of Radnor, Pa.—about 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia—is home to a joint venture created earlier this year that was formed to revolutionize the way television viewers access on-demand content. Much is at stake. Video on demand and subscription video on demand are being touted as the most important differentiators between digital cable and satellite. While digital video recorders are being deployed en masse by both cable and satellite in the race to give viewers the capability to store content and watch it later, cable industry analysts expect that over time, VOD’s server-based functionality will become the preferred method of content storage. Comcast, one of the most aggressive operators in deploying on demand services, will have as much as 10,000 hours of VOD content available to its digital subscribers within a couple of years, and, with digital compression, the company could theoretically offer up to 20,000 hours. As penetration of VOD, now at under 50% of digital subscribers, expands, the ease with which consumers can access it will become a crucial factor in its success. Gemstar and Comcast, along with Time Warner Cable and vendors such as Digeo, are working feverishly toward the Holy Grail of VOD—total consumer awareness and easy accessibility. "The problem with on-demand navigation today is it’s tough for people to find the content they want to see," says Todd Walker, SVP and GM, TV Guide Television Group. "In our environment you have to navigate a long series of menus, and you never know where the next menu is going to take you," he explains. "It’s the same thing in the Scientific-Atlanta or Pioneer environment, where you have to go search for the channel number to get to the on-demand environment. How do you know where HBO On Demand is unless you just saw a commercial on it that tells you it’s channel 283?" All Roads Lead to VOD Executives in the VOD space agree there shouldn’t be one particular way to find and navigate on-demand content. "We are all wrestling with and trying to find answers from a consumer navigation" standpoint, says Time Warner Cable chief marketing officer Chuck Ellis. Through Comcast’s joint venture—dubbed the Interactive Programming Guide Development Group—the Philadelphia-based MSO is shaping the look and feel of its "I-Guide" and the way the it interacts with the digital platform. Similar to Time Warner Cable, which is planning to replace its Scientific-Atlanta SARA and Passport guides with its own Digital Navigator (the guide that originated through its MystroTV group), Comcast and the TV Guide Television Group are focusing on integrating VOD content with linear content listings that appear in a guide’s grid, and on search capabilities. "The big payoff is about making the interface cutting edge and excellent, driving usage from a consumer standpoint, leveraging the two-way platform and allowing us to put other products on quickly," says Mark Hess, Comcast’s VP, digital tv, and a member of the guide development group’s management team. Comcast paid Gemstar-TV Guide $250 million for a long-term licensing agreement to use the I-Guide throughout its footprint, and, with a 51% stake in the venture, is the operating partner (Gemstar provides most of the staffing). Gemstar retains the license for distribution in other cable systems, and is the exclusive agent for advertising for all the new guides deployed, although it will share a portion of that revenue with operators. In Radnor, Gemstar expects to increase staffing for the group by about 40%; funding is expected to double, according to Malia Flynn, director, interactive services, TV Guide Television Group. The idea behind the new guide not only is to promote more on-demand content, but also to make it available to users in more than one place. Building Awareness, Growing Usage Comcast and TV Guide are trying to change the way people get to on-demand content, Walker says. "We’re going to have on-demand programming scattered everywhere throughout the guide. You change the channel and it’s going to be right there in front of you. You go into the grid, there’s going to be a virtual channel set up for each of the [on-demand] submenus. You go into the menu structure, [on-demand access] is going to be there," he adds. "So hopefully the awareness of on-demand programming and the availability of on demand is going to be much more in the face of the user." There will be four main ways to access on-demand programming, which will give users seven or eight different access points: through menus; through the channel lineup; through a flip bar that can be called up when a user is watching a particular channel; and through banner ads. At the Radnor offices recently, Flynn demonstrated the multiple menus that can take a viewer to a VOD screen, including what will likely become known throughout the industry as a "quick menu," which uses icons for quick and easy access. On-demand programming still can be accessed through channels, of course, either by flipping through them, entering an on-demand channel number or paging through the guide. Linear channels will be linked to their on-demand counterparts, something Scripps Networks already is doing. The I-Guide will feature one banner ad on the bottom to promote VOD—users will be able to click through the ad to an on-demand screen, which will be customizable by either the MSO or the programmer. The guide, which has been jazzed up with higher resolution, richer graphics and crisper text, is expected to be deployed within weeks. Once deployed, the Interactive Programming Guide Development Group will do extensive user testing to see which ways users are accessing VOD the most; that research will help shape future developments. Thinking Outside the Grid As on-demand content balloons, incorporating search functionality becomes crucial—and challenging. "There’s almost 2,000 hours on our servers now in Philadelphia," says Hess. "Now, if I get to a point where there are 10,000 hours—wow—search is all there is." Hess envisions cable customers being able to search all content, whether on demand, on linear channels or saved on a DVR. Incorporating that functionality won’t be a snap. "If television simply becomes a lot of listings and a search engine, it’s not going to be the engaging interface that consumers will really use," says Joel Ginsparg, VP and GM of SeaChange International’s digital video arts unit. "You have to create a navigational metaphor that is not only easy to use but is contextual to the environment that you’re navigating in." In other words, he adds, "it’s got to be a television-oriented environment, it’s got to have video and audio, it’s got to engage people to want to watch." Likewise, if an MSO simply inserts listings for on-demand content—which by its very nature has no time and channel format attached to it—into a programming grid with lots of linear channels, then that MSO is not improving the user interface, Ginsparg says. Barring these challenges, Ginsparg says he applauds the joint venture’s efforts to move away from layers and layers of menus. As on demand becomes more prevalent—some far-seeing industry types say this type of viewing will be the norm within five years—Ginsparg says he expects more innovation and "mini-environments" within the on-demand world that parallel the look and feel of today’s linear networks. "I think part of what will make the business model successful for VOD will be the ability of user interfaces to evolve such that content providers can innovate and create distinct looks," he notes. Hess at Comcast has an even further-reaching vision: "I see a day where you don’t worry about channel numbers," he says.

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