Companies Battle to Serve You and Your Television
A war between cable, satellite and phone giants could yield more TV options and lower costs for consumers.
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Cable, satellite and telephone all want you—and your TV. Illustration credit: Hal Mayforth
January 09, 2007 by Rebecca Day

You can expect plenty of competition for the family TV this year. Gaming households will be pumping the latest Xbox or PlayStation3 titles onto the big screen. Microsoft Vista users will shoot vacation slide shows to the plasma TV. Early adopters will gush over movies on high-def DVD formats HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

But the viewing options that jazz you the most may come from the least expected sources: the cable, satellite and telephone companies. As these three compete for your viewing time, expect to be wooed with a wide assortment of features that put TV on your terms and in a way you’ve never experienced before. Here’s what the content providers have in store for you in 2007.

View more of our CES special coverageCable: HD, Video on Demand and DVRs
High-definition TV and HD video-on-demand services will be key options in Comcast’s portfolio for 2007. The nation’s largest cable company offers its 24 million subscribers 150 hours of HD on demand at any given time. Combine that with 18 hours of schedule-based, “linear” HD programming from channels including broadcast, ESPN HD, Universal HD and TNT HD, and 20 movies a month from STARZ HD. Customers who pay the additional $5 per month for an HD cable box receive all HD content, according to Page Thompson, senior vice president and general manager of video services for Comcast.

In total, Comcast customers have access to 6,000 choices for on-demand programming. That includes free video-on-demand primetime programming from CBS including various “CSI” series, “Survivor,” “NCIS,” “Numb3rs,” “Jericho” and “Big Brother.” After experimenting with a 99-cent fee structure, the company chose last fall to make the service free with advertising support.

Thompson says a key strategy for Comcast and other cable companies is to deliver more channels using existing bandwidth. The cable industry is pushing an initiative called switched digital video, which is a more efficient means for utilizing the cable pipeline. “With switched digital, if you’re only watching one thing, we can send it to just you—it doesn’t have to go to the entire neighborhood,” Thompson says. “Instead of having, say, 10 digital channels on each 6-MHz bandwidth, you might be able to have 30 or 40.”

The ability to “time shift” programming is another part of the Comcast package. A DVR rental is $10 a month for a dual-tuner model that allows you to record one program while viewing another.

Satellite: Broadband Content, Games and 3D
Satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network are also pushing forward with video-on-demand (VOD) plans. DirecTV plans to launch a broadband VOD service nationwide in May that will be available to subscribers with HD set-top boxes. “If a customer plugs a box into a home network, he’ll be able to get thousands of titles—movies and TV shows—delivered through broadband that he can record to DVR,” says Eric Shanks, executive vice president of DirecTV Entertainment. Current subscribers with HD boxes will be able to upgrade to the on-demand service via software.

The DirecTV broadband service is also compatible with Intel’s Viiv technology. Subscribers with a Viiv PC will be able to transfer music and photos over the Viiv network to and from the DirecTV set-top box.

DirecTV customers will also be able to take content on the road. A software upgrade due in 2007 will allow video transfers from a DirecTV DVR to a portable media player such as the RCA Lyra or a Samsung Yepp.

Count on the Internet to play a big role in the DirecTV customer experience in 2007. “Up until now, we’ve used the Internet primarily as a customer service and sales tool,” Shanks says. “In 2007, you’ll start to see it become an integral part of the entertainment experience. We’ll be using broadband to get content to the set-top box and also allowing customers to either download or stream content on their PCs or mobile devices.” Movies downloaded from the Internet will carry a price, but programming already included in DirecTV subscriptions will be bundled. “If you’re an NFL Sunday Ticket customer, you’ll be able to get streaming games for free on your PC as part of the Sunday Ticket package,” Shanks says.

Games are also on the DirecTV menu. The company launched DirecTV Game Lounge at the end of 2006. Subscribers can play games such as solitaire, word crunch, blackjack, and kids’ and puzzle games onscreen by using their remote control. The package is $6 a month for the full palette of games, and you can view leader boards and play against other DirecTV customers for money.

And that’s not all that’s up DirecTV’s satellite sleeve. “We’re trying to find a way to broadcast 3D,” Shanks says. He cites Barry Levinson movies, “Shrek 3,” sports, animations and IMAX programming as possible content. Consumer devices that can display 3D will be on the market next year, he says, and the company is testing 3D viewing models that do and don’t require special glasses.

Satellite rival Dish Network has lined up a portfolio of HD and video-on-demand options for subscribers. HD junkies will get their fix from 30 channels of HD programming that deliver more than 200 hours of content a day. The HD DVR packs in 200 hours of standard-def programming or 30 hours of hi res, delivered either by satellite or over the air.

For on-demand, Dish inked a deal with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group to carry current and catalog movie titles on its pay-per-view channels. The company also runs seasonal on demand specials, including recaps of popular ABC series “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” so subscribers can get up to speed before new seasons.

On-the-go subscribers can take along up to 120 hours of lo-res video or a combination of video, music and pictures using the 40-GB AV 700E Pocket Dish player with a 7-inch LCD and built-in speakers.

Phone: FiOS Expands TV Options
As cable and satellite providers try to one up each other in their ongoing battle for consumer eyeballs, telephone companies are steadily pushing their way into the neighborhood, too. Verizon has been one of the most aggressive with its FiOS TV service and is expected to have 175,000 FiOS customers by the end of 2006 (out of a potential customer base of 1.8 million households). One roadblock for Verizon is securing franchises for delivery of TV services, which thus far has largely been done on a town-by-town basis. The company is currently delivering video content to areas in California, Texas, Florida, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Among the highlights of the FiOS package are two dozen HD channels, including local channels, Discovery HD, National Geographic HD, ESPN HD and HBO. Thanks to its growing fiber-optic network, Verizon touts the capacity to add more HD channels and its capability to deliver uncompressed video for a lossless signal. “Even standard definition with FiOS is incredibly sharp and clear and the colors rich, because we don’t tinker with the signal in any way,” says Steve Haire, product development manager for FiOS. “We don’t have to alter the signal, unlike other providers, because we have the bandwidth available.”

FiOS is based on a hybrid delivery approach that uses QAM (cable TV) technology for delivery of regular TV programming and IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) for video-on-demand services. The IP portion allows for interactive data services, giving subscribers the ability to call up local weather and traffic info with the remote control.

FiOS is a network-based video system. When Verizon installers set up your video, they set up a home network as well, which gives you the ability to share content between TVs. That content can include recorded video or digital photos and music stored on a connected PC. The FiOS multiroom DVR feature enables you to access recorded content from one DVR on any connected TV in the house. “You’re not limited any more by where you’ve recorded TV shows,” Haire says. Up to seven TVs can be connected on a FiOS network.

Verizon’s extended basic package delivers 200-plus digital channels, including the 25 HD feeds. Subscribers also have access to 3,500 VOD titles, some free and others on a pay-per-view model. For $12.95 or $9.95 per month—standard def versus HD—consumers can rent dual-tuner DVRs that allow them to watch one program and view another.

The phone company is making an attractive pitch: more than 200 digital channels and access to 3,500 video-on-demand titles for $40 a month, plus box rental. The aggressive package is making the competition take notice—and that’s always a good thing for consumers.

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