When it comes to the new world of video-on-demand, keep it simple and keep it consistent.
That’s what the cable industry is aiming to do with the VOD user interface-the on-screen guide that allows viewers to engage in different on-demand viewing options.
At the CTAM Digital & Broadband Conference in Los Angeles this week, the CTAM On Demand Consortium plans to release the user interface best practices guidelines that it has been developing for the past several months and to demonstrate the next generation of interactive on-demand guides based on those guidelines.
Among the items on the expansive list of best practices is the charge to make on-demand navigation simpler and uniform across cable operators. The expectation is that with an easier-to-use interface, more viewers will be comfortable with the on-demand screen and thus more apt to use and buy content.
“We want to make [the user interface] more of a selling and promotional tool rather than have consumers fight to find it,” said Tania Jones, VP, marketing, at CTAM.
The goal is to provide easy and consistent access to on-demand content. That includes minimizing the number of “clicks” viewers must execute before they can start watching a show or a movie, keeping the navigation functions visible on the screen and using the same navigation scheme for all on-demand platforms, such as personal video recorders and set-top boxes.
Guide providers such as TV Guide Interactive, Scientific-Atlanta, Microsoft, nCube, Sea Change and Concurrent will display guides that incorporate the simpler functionality at the CTAM conference.
The guide makeover is necessary because the current generation of on-demand interfaces rely on the traditional interactive program guide, which wasn’t designed to handle the complex array of pages, menus and options that on-demand services necessitate, Ms. Jones said.
But that assortment of pages must be easy to navigate. That’s why the consortium’s recommendations include consistency in the size of letters, the location of buttons and the colors used by operators and guide makers, said Greg DePrez, VP, subscription VOD, at Starz Encore Group and a member of the On Demand Consortium. Other key factors include an easy method of entry for consumers into the on-demand world-such as a virtual channel located next to the linear one. In Starz’s case, that would mean that the on-demand menu for Starz! would be located right next to the linear channel, he said.
The next release of TV Guide Interactive’s interface, iGuide, slated for summer availability, should include such virtual channels, said Mitch Miller, VP, on-demand product management, for TV Guide Television Group. The new guide will include “quick-access menu bars” that appear on the bottom of the screen and list various icons, such as on-demand, digital video recorders or high definition, that a user would click on to reach those services.
“Every time they scroll through the channels, there should be an opportunity to access on-demand,” he said.
Virtual channels have been used by overbuilder Altrio in Los Angeles with great success. The user interface there has already included many of the elements that CTAM is recommending, Mr. DePrez said. Starz On Demand is bundled with the Starz SuperPak of channels for no additional fee and is located next to the linear channel on the channel lineup. “It’s really easy to get into the Starz neighborhood,” Mr. DePrez said.
The strategy worked, he said. Penetration for the Starz SuperPak in Altrio’s Los Angeles system was at about 33 percent of the digital universe nearly two years ago, a number that rose to 50 percent in December 2002, three months after Starz On Demand was launched, indicating that easy-to-find on-demand content can drive subscriptions to the premium service, he said. On average, about two-thirds of customers who have access to Starz On Demand in Altrio use it, he said.
The ultimate goal is a truly seamless viewing experience, Mr. DePrez said. Ideally, if a viewer tuned into a Starz! movie midway through on the linear channel, the cable system could deliver an on-screen message, “Would you like to watch this from the beginning?” The consumer would then be switched automatically to Starz On Demand.
“VOD is all about convenience. It’s not convenience until it’s very easy to use, and then the whole virtue of on-demand becomes readily apparent,” he said.
The user interface face lift is just one component of the strategy that’s needed to drive on-demand usage. Others are nationwide availability, accurate and widespread measurement systems and earlier release windows, said Bob Davis, managing director of consumer broadband practice at Dove Consulting and a consultant to the consortium.