The iTV Doctor Is In!: Ockham's Razor and the Cable Engineer

iTV Doctor

Dear Readers:

There's something about cable software engineers. I joke about getting anything you want with a couple of diet cokes and a bag of beef jerky. But that's wrong: sometimes you need a Costco-sized container of Swedish Fish--the red ones.

Maybe it's my background. My dad was a chemical engineer for DuPont, and an inveterate problem solver. I started in the cable business doing construction, and would probably be on that side of the fence today if my wife hadn't bought me my first calculator and briefcase.

But when you get stuck, there's no better place to get the straight answer than the folks in the back. They're blunt, honest and unforgiving--exactly what the industry needs.

So in my quest to find a way to create the right consumer process for "telescoping," roughly described as "pause--fetch--resume" (see "The iTV Doctor," April 23rd and May 13th, 2010), I spoke to a couple of guys at The Cable Show earlier this month, and their responses were refreshingly obvious--to the point of providing a living example of Ockham's Razor (sometimes spelled Occam's Razor).

Now for those of you who don't subscribe to "A Word A Day" (thanks, Nomi), the literal translation of Ockham's Razor is that "entities should not be multiplied needlessly." But a more practical usage is "the simplest of explanations is more likely to be correct."

And that's what we have. To remind readers, here is the question: "Can the operator enable a process wherein the linear channel PAUSES while the viewer goes to an interactive application, possibly with a VOD asset, and then RESUMES the linear channel when the viewer clicks back?"

So we're going to hear from Jim Owens at Motorola and Ben Hollin at Cisco. Then Tara Maitra from TiVo (who is providing a real-life solution RIGHT NOW with TiVo DVR's and TiVo software loaded on third-party DVR's).


First, Jim Owens, Sr. Product Marketing Manager, On-Demand Video, Home & Networks Mobility, Motorola:

"The technology exists to implement this today, it's a question of designing a solution and putting the business arrangements in place to support it.

The two most commonly cited options are using the buffer in the set-top DVR and utilizing the VOD infrastructure. In the set-top DVR model, the interactive application integrates with the DVR or EPG to pause the program while the user views the ad or application, then resumes the program from the DVR when the ad is over.

The VOD model allows for the same basic experience, but can work with any digital set-top. Today several operators have deployed time-shifted TV applications which leverage the VOD infrastructure to capture live programs and make them available as VOD assets in near real-time. This allows a viewer to transition from the live version of the program to an on-demand version--while the program is still airing--so they can view the show from the beginning, pause and rewind (but usually not fast-forward). If a specific program is
enabled as a time-shifted TV asset, then a user could view a telescoped ad or an interactive app and return to the point where they exited the live program by creating a VOD session that joins the on-demand version of the program at that point. This would require not only that the operator has rights from the content owner
to time-shift the program, but that it also has rights to insert interactive advertising into that program."

Second, Ben Hollin, Sr. Manager, Advanced Advertising Solutions, Cisco Media Solutions Group:

"The problem you describe is less a technical issue than a business issue. As service providers build out solutions which offer network time-shift based services (e.g., Start Over, Look Back, RS-DVR), the capability to record live TV and buffer it in the network for subsequent playback is increasingly common. Today, when a viewer watching a live program selects the Start Over button, what happens is they tune away from the broadcast (or multicast, in IP parlance) and start up a unicast (VOD) session for delivery of the program from network storage. Some operators have deployed the ability for a viewer to pause live TV, as if watching on a DVR, and then restart at their convenience--again, initiating unicast playback skewed from the live timeline. The implementation is often operator-specific, but in some cases, if the viewer subsequently fast-forwards, when they finally catch up to the live timeline they rejoin the broadcast and relinquish the unicast bandwidth.

There are some challenges to repurposing this capability in order to address your use case:

  • Operators' carriage agreements with the content providers typically constrain their right to record live programming for subsequent time-shifted delivery to narrowly defined services (e.g., Start Over). The content providers would have to agree to allow this, and they don't usually agree to broaden an operator's rights without some sort of quid pro quo. It's not clear if the ability to resume the linear program where the viewer left off before being diverted into an interactive session is sufficient motivation for them. However, advances in advertising capabilities which will enable operators to offer programmers the ability to traffic dynamic, addressable ads using operator infrastructure should become a strong incentive for the parties to negotiate expanded carriage rights; in particular, once it's possible for a programmer to monetize time-shifted viewing via incremental advertising capabilities, they will be more likely to allow the operators to record their programs.
  • Operators who are delivering time-shifted services today have built out sufficient capacity for those services based on usage assumptions, which include both adequate network storage of linear content as well as bandwidth for concurrent unicast delivery. The enhancement you propose will presumably result in more time-shifted viewing. Operators will need to scale their infrastructure so that they have sufficient capacity to meet increased unicast demand.
  • Control plane enhancements which manage the signaling of the "pause" when a viewer is diverted into an interactive session (e.g., telescoping from a short-form linear ad to a long-form VOD ad) would need to be implemented, very likely in an operator-specific fashion, since most operators have defined their own protocols for managing content ingest (including recording), session setup, bandwidth provisioning and playout control.

That said, the foundation technology exists and is relatively mature. What's missing (or, more precisely, has yet to be validated) is the financial upside for making the necessary investments. If it makes good business sense and can be structured as a win-win for both operators and programmers, then I believe it is inevitable that you will see the capabilities you propose become available in the not-too-distant future."

Finally, Tara Maitra, VP and General Manager of Content Services, TiVo:

"Interactive television has been around for a long time but it always fell short. Why? Because viewers quickly realized that engaging with interactivity came at cost--and the price tag was their TV shows. A click of the remote could bring the TV consumer into a creative application or long-form video, but when he tried to return to his favorite TV show, he would find it had played on without him and he couldn't get it back. And so the viewer didn't click again.

TiVo solved that problem. In a TiVo home, the subscriber knows when she is presented with a "thumbs up" or interactive tag signaling there is extra "stuff" available, if she clicks the remote to enter the application (be it a movie trailer or ticket buying application, car guide, game or even a coupon for paper towels), when she clicks back, she will be at the very same spot in her TV show where she left it. TiVo's interactive advertising and content solutions allow programmers and marketers to reach viewers with deeper experiences and longer-form video. The reason a high percentage of consumers are willing to engage is they know there is no chance they will miss what brought them to the TV in the first place."

(Next column, we'll talk to a new player: Eric Gould Bear is an inventor whose company, MONKEYmedia, has recently sued Apple for patent violation in the "telescoping" space, as reported on, May 17th.)



The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at


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