Time Warner Cable‘s Start Over service turns one year old this month after launching last year in the South Carolina division. While a look back at how the service has fared over the past year is in order, a recent Webcast also gave a preview of an upcoming service, called Look Back and which utilizes the same infrastructure.
Our Nov. 14 Webcast (now available free on demand—click here), gave TWC’s Keith Nichols and Bob Benya, senior director, new technology deployments, and senior vice president, VOD and interactive TV, respectively, the opportunity to expound on the operational aspects of Start Over as well as a look ahead to Look Back.
"We’ve been talking about a feature for some time that we call Look Back," Benya said. "You can call it network DVR, but we don’t look at it that way."
While Start Over allows viewers to go back to the beginning of a Start Over enabled program by selecting an onscreen icon during the show’s run time, Look Back would enable viewers to see a show after its scheduled run time the same night.
While Cablevision has seen its network DVR solution become embroiled in legal action with programmers, TWC, in an apparent lesson learned from the Mystro days, is working to build relationships with the network content owners. One step in that direction was Start Over, which TWC is hoping will grease the wheels to Look Back.
"Programmers are happy with Start Over because it doesn’t jeopardize advertising and because there’s no copy (of the program) left in the home," Benya said. "The time shifting is subtle; on average the time shifting is 15 minutes from the start of a program, so the advertising is relevant, and there’s no fast forward."
Benya said TWC is working on other similar features, such as Look Back, from the same platform.
"I think we we’ll be able to get buy in from the programming community to be able to do other kinds of features where we’re preserving the integrity of the advertising and providing a value-added experience to the viewer," he said.
Like Start Over, the programmers would pick which programs would be available for Look Back mode after a program has completed its regularly scheduled broadcast. Benya said by making the Look Back programs accessible only on the same day of the original broadcast, the ads remain relevant for tracking by Nielsen.
Among other benefits, Look Back would give the programmers a multiplex experience for their shows without dedicating the broadcast resources.
"It also allows them to do on demand right after the broadcast with no transport or encoding costs involved," Benya said. "With Look Back, all of the advertising is intact, there’s no fast forward or ad skip controls, and the networks control which programs and the duration. I think that’s an interesting model to pursue to take Start Over to the next level."
TWC hasn’t released any information on when or where Look Back may be deployed. Start Over Benefits In addition to South Carolina, Start Over has also been rolled in the San Antonio and Rochester, NY, divisions over the past few weeks while Greensborough, NC, is slated for the service by the end of this month as well as couple of unnamed divisions by year’s end.
Currently, South Carolina digital subscribers have 93 channels that feature Start Over, but Benya said that number would increase to 115 channels, but "150 channels seems to be the sweet spot in terms of planning."
While Start Over leverages TWC’s VOD infrastructure, with the addition of more streaming capacity, Nichols said the strategy for rolling out Start Over is to do it in areas where the cable company is also implementing switched digital video (SDV) and digital simulcast.
"When we’re doing service groups for switched digital video, we do them for Start Over as well," Nichols said. "We’re doing the wiring for one, so we may as well do it for the other."
Nichols said "the secret sauce" in the Start Over deployments is TWC’s Sectamus scheduler, which was develop in-house in Westminster, CO. The Sectamus forms the metadata from the real-time feeds off a satellite or real-time encoder and then sets up the start and stop times.
"The biggest fundamental area is on service group implementation," Nichols said. "We determined the sweet spot was 1,000 tuners, although in some areas we have 500 tuners where there is concentrated use of VOD and Start Over. We keep a very close eye on monitoring what the service group usage is, and we’ve also being very aggressive in splitting service groups."
Start Over not only gives TWC a competitive edge over other service providers, but it also has increased viewership of VOD in the areas where it has been deployed. Nichols said that 70 percent of digital set-top box owners have used Start Over at least once, whereas about 30 percent use VOD in a typical system.
"We haven’t proven it yet, but there seems to be less churn in Start Over markets," Nichols said. "We’ve found that it doesn’t cannibalize what DVRs do; it only augments what DVRs do. The people who plan ahead can use their DVRs for viewing the content, but those who don’t can use Start Over to view the whole show."
According to TWC research, viewers are 25 percent more likely to watch a show that is Start Over enabled than one that it isn’t, which is music to the programmers’ ears.
"We’re seeing solid retention characteristics from the feature, and our digital set-top boxes seem to be growing faster in Start Over communities vs. control groups," Benya said. "What we’re learning is that folks want this functionality across more sets in their homes. Since we’ve launched Start Over in South Carolina, our VOD growth has been substantial."
To view the free Webcast of "Time Shifted TV: A Case Study on Time Warner Cable’s Start Over Service," sponsored by Motorola and hosted by Communications Technology, click here. (Registration is required.) To catch up on some reading on Start Over, check out CT‘s cover story by clicking here. – Mike Robuck