Cablers Back in Game

Apr 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When cable and broadcast networks began offering their programs directly to consumers on mobile phones and broadband last year, cable operators were largely cut out of the picture. Technology firms that demonstrated new services at the National Cable Show last week in Atlanta are working to change that, offering ways to undo the cable bypass.

Their new tools bring cable operators back into the equation by integrating cable service more seamlessly with the new platforms of cellphone and Internet.

A handful of new services were previewed at the show that will smooth the transition to a fully portable world, where content no longer resides in and on separate new distribution platforms but can be shared across devices. Motorola introduced a cellphone extension of its Follow Me TV DVR service, which allows consumers to shift and share their DVR content with other DVRs in the home. This latest wrinkle gives consumers the capability to watch a show on TV and continue watching it on the phone as they leave the house.

Such a product offering can help cable operators better compete with the encroaching telcos that have touted their ability to offer such integrated offerings with cellphones, including the ability to program a DVR from a cellphone.

More Services

In addition, startup technology firms Itaas and Embience have developed a service to allow TV content to be downloaded to a mobile device from the TV. Here’s how it could work: A customer is watching a music video and an icon pops up on the bottom of the TV screen asking if for a fee the customer wants to download the video or a ring tone, explained Itaas President and CEO Vibha Rustagi. The customer then enters his or her mobile phone number using the remote and the video is quickly downloaded to the cellphone.

For this service to be deployed, Itaas and Embience must strike deals with mobile providers, content companies and cable operators, all of which would get a slice of the revenue. “This is an impulse buy when you are watching TV,” said Ms. Rustagi, who anticipates trials later this year or early next year.

A similar trend is occurring in the Internet video space as technology emerges that enables cable operators to deliver their TV content on PCs and to offer Internet video on the TV set.

For instance, TV technology firm Tandberg Television demonstrated an extension of its existing video-on-demand software that lets cable operators send VOD programming to a computer. “They can now make that VOD content available to anyone with a PC,” said Braxton Jarratt, senior VP of marketing and business development for Tandberg Television.

Similarly, VOD server-maker SeaChange exhibited tools to extend VOD programming to cellphones, personal digital assistants and laptops and for download to iPods and Sony PSPs.

Scientific-Atlanta, now a Cisco company, showcased its next-generation set-top box that feeds into this new trend by allowing consumers to access Internet video on the TV, said Dave Davies, VP of strategy and product marketing at Scientific-Atlanta. “If a cable operator did a deal with MovieLink or CinemaNow, for instance, the cable operator could extend that to offer it in the cable box,” he said.

Details Still Bedevil

As technologists dream up and develop new offerings, business models still must be resolved before such services are available in the marketplace. Mr. Davies said he expects cable operators to test the new boxes later this year.

Content providers also will have a say. “There needs to be a business model that makes sense to all parties,” said Ron Lamprecht, VP of new media for NBC Universal Cable. “The actual user experience must be easy to use and it needs to be secure with protection of content.” If those three factors are in place, content providers will be eager to participate, he said.

And new services that emerge can’t simply duplicate existing ones. Consumers will want different experiences on different devices, said Beth Higbee, VP of new media for Scripps’ Food Network, Fine Living and GAC. For instance, if a Food Network program is easily transferred from a DVR to a cellphone, the consumer likely will want additional interactive content, such as a recipe attached to it, she said.