New technology is like personal video on steroids

Jun 4, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Navigating the multichannel universe can be a dizzying experience. If one clicks a remote through hundreds of cable or satellite channels quickly enough, one can at times feel a bit like a cosmonaut rocketing through space at the speed of light.
But at next week’s National Cable & Telecommunciations Association convention in Chicago, new personal video recording technologies being developed by Concurrent Computer and nCube will be heralded as The Next Great Opiate of the Masses-one that will take us back to a simpler time, when switching channels hundreds of times in one sitting was inconceivable.
The next-generation PVR-with networks of massive servers, which promise to store more than 4,000 hours of programming at one time (equal to about a week’s worth of prime-time and weekend programming on hundreds of channels, plus a portion of the daytime shows)-could almost be mistaken for a surveillance tool used by the KGB.
Unlike TiVo, Sonicblue’s ReplayTV and Microsoft’s UltimateTV-the current breed of personal video recorders that can only record a couple of television programs at a time-nCube and Concurrent’s PVR tools are billed as being able to capture the entire multichannel universe in their expansive servers without using any space on a set-top box’s hard drive.
The PVR service, which has been in the works for several years, has now caught the eye of several MSOs.
“We are watching the development of these technologies very closely and are very interested in evaluating them further later this year,” said Cox Vice President of Multimedia Technology John Hildebrand, noting that Time Warner Cable has been actively testing the PVR solution. At deadline, Time Warner was not able to confirm that it has been studying server-based PVR systems.
Even the PVR infrastructure’s backers acknowledge that it faces potentially crippling legal obstacles.
“Deploying network-based PVR is much more complicated [than TiVo or ReplayTV] because the existing [cable TV] programming contracts the networks have with the cable operators don’t allow it,” conceded nCube Senior Vice President of Worldwide Sales and Marketing Dan Sheeran. Such contractual provisions were devised by cable programming networks to prevent emerging media technologies from cannibalizing their franchises, Mr. Sheeran said.
But the PVR camp will be able to cite at least one landmark court decision that appears to cut in its favor. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sony vs. Universal City Studios that audiences who recorded television programs with now-obsolete Betamax videotape recorders did not infringe upon Universal’s copyrights, overturning an appellate court’s prior ruling.
Aside from the legal hurdles that nCube and Concurrent may face, some market participants believe the jury is still out on whether next-generation PVR will prove to be economical.
“Technically, could they [nCube and Concurrent] do it?” Charter Communications Vice President of Corporate Development Jim Henderson asked rhetorically. “Yeah. But could they do it cost-effectively? I don’t know … I think it’s a little early to tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”