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Cablevision search engine in high gear

Aug 20, 2001  •  Post A Comment

l Cablevision, the nation’s seventh-largest cable operator, is developing a new technology that would bring the search engine capabilities of the Internet to digital cable, sources said.
Users of the Internet are able to navigate through a vast array of textual, audio and video content by typing in search queries. By contrast, cable television viewers have relied on less powerful program guides that merely list a slate of scheduled television programs. That is expected to change, however, as growing numbers of cable television viewers sign up for digital cable subscriptions.
Digital cable packages, which will soon offer thousands of hours of on-demand programming and a variety of expanded digital channels in addition to the traditional lineup of shows available on analog cable, will need to be navigated via search tools comparable to the Internet, some cable industry executives said. Such a technology would enable viewers to type queries asking for a particular title, genre, actor or director, prompting the computer embedded in the viewer’s set-top box to deliver a customized list of corresponding programs.
Because Cablevision has not finished creating the search technology, it is unclear when it will be offered to digital cable subscribers. The most cutting-edge features of Cablevision’s planned digital package, such as the search engine and personal-video-recording capabilities, may not be ready by late September, when the cable operator introduces digital services to its 3 million cable subscribers in the New York City metropolitan area, industry insiders said.
Before Cablevision launches the search tool, the multiple system operator will have to clear several hurdles. First, it must decide whether to create the search engine itself or assign the project to a third-party vendor. The cable operator has met with several developers of Internet search technologies but appears to be leaning toward crafting the technology on its own, sources said.
The MSO also needs to determine the scope of the engine’s search capabilities. While the tool will definitely be capable of retrieving content from a library of video-on-demand content, it remains uncertain whether the technology’s searches would reach into lineups of scheduled digital cable programming, or even into slates of traditional scheduled programs on non-digital basic channels.
In addition, Cablevision must decide whether the list of programs displayed in response to search queries will be selected and prioritized based on the meaning of the words entered by the user (an approach followed by many Internet search engines) or by the amount that an advertiser who matches a search result has paid the search engine operator (similar to the pay-for-listing model pioneered by GoTo.com).
Finally, the operator is grappling with whether it will embed its search engine within its electronic programming guide (which, unlike those used by other MSOs, is a guide that it created itself rather than licensing from another company) or feature it as a navigation tool apart from the guide. Certain to weigh in on Cablevision’s deliberations is the influence of litigious cable programming guide vendor Gemstar-TV Guide.
A Cablevision spokesperson declined to comment on the search technology in development.
Last week, on a quarterly earnings call for investors, Gemstar Chief Operating Officer Peter Boylan expressed the company’s hostility toward Cablevision’s forthcoming programming guide. “Cablevision is planning on offering their customers what we believe is a poorly conceived IPG that was clearly conceived by lawyers,” Mr. Boylan said. “We’re surprised that Cablevision would risk losing their subscribers to DBS.”
Regardless of how quickly the operator can finish developing its search technology, its basic lineup of digital cable services is on schedule for launch at the end of next month, a Cablevision spokesman said.
When the new offerings are brought to market, the MSO will become the first major American cable operator to introduce digital services to its entire subscriber base at one time. The nation’s other leading cable operators have deployed advanced services in only one or several portions of their coverage area at a time.
The operator’s digital package will include video on demand, digital channels and several other interactive features to complement its programming guide. As part of the service launch, Cablevision will also become the first major American cable operator to deploy Sony Electronics’ DHG-M55CB set-top box.
Unlike many other set-top manufacturers who operate their boxes alongside one of the two dominant conditional access systems in the cable industry-Motorola’s Digi Cipher II and Scientific-Atlanta’s PowerKey-Sony plans to pair its set-top with its own conditional access technology, said Sony Electronics spokesman Mack Araki.