Personal video recorders (PVRs) have become popular consumer devices, due in no small part to the efforts of TiVo, one of the pioneers in the area. These devices, which include real-time video compression chips and a hard drive to allow consumers to easily make recordings of any television broadcast for later playback, have an installed base that should continue to increase over the next few years. However, as new services gain acceptance, the need for PVRs may slowly start to diminish for many consumers. Since many of these new services are being delivered over public and private networks, it makes sense to take a look at them and see how they compare to the traditional standalone hardware devices and to each other. But first, a quick review of where PVRs are now.
Consumers have two main uses for PVRs today. One use is to pause live TV, an application that might be hard to replicate with another technology. The second use is time-shifting, where a program is recorded from a broadcast at one time and played back at another time under the control of the consumer. Time-shifting technology also has the incidental benefit of allowing the viewer to skip commercials during playback of the recorded material. All of these functions require similar device capabilities—an encoder that captures a live broadcast, a hard disk to store the content and a decoder for playing the content back to a display.
According to In-Stat, the installed base of PVRs was 44.6 million units worldwide at the end of 2007, with projected shipments of 22.6 million units in 2008. Many of these units are in the form of set-top boxes for satellite or cable TV applications.
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Satellite TV operators have turned to PVR technologies out of necessity—there is no practical way to deliver on-demand content to thousands of viewers using only a satellite delivery system. Instead, satellite operators can either push content to hard disks in subscriber devices or allow subscribers to pull content from central servers using their broadband Internet connection. Many cable TV operators also offer PVR capabilities in their set-top boxes, because it is a nice way to increase monthly rental income from subscribers.
Several alternative technologies exist that can act as substitutes for a PVR, if the primary objective of the consumer is time-shifting. Each technology has benefits and drawbacks for the viewer, and it is likely that any given viewer could choose more than one for different applications.
As mentioned in a previous column about PVRs, "What's Wrong With Network DVRs?" (TV Technology, Jan. 10, 2007), network PVRs allow viewers to record programs using centralized storage devices in place of a hard disk built into a home device. Playback of the recorded content is by way of a video stream delivered over a broadband interface to a decoder in the viewer's set-top box. This approach has a couple of user benefits, including the removal of the hard disk from the consumer's home (better security and fewer things to break) and greater dependability, since a power outage at the viewer's home won't affect the centralized storage system. This approach could also benefit content owners if there was a way to insert current commercials into content that the consumer recorded weeks or months earlier (more on this later).
Another powerful competitor to the PVR is video-on-demand (VOD), where the content consists of recently broadcast network television programs. Sometimes called "catch up TV," this technology permits viewers to watch recently aired programming, for a limited period of time after the original broadcast (typically a maximum of seven to 28 days afterwards). The Internet is often used for delivery primarily to computer displays, but appliances have appeared that permit streaming video to be viewed on a television set.
For customers of premium movie channels (HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, etc.), many cable TV providers offer an on-demand package for subscribers to the broadcast version. These packages allow on-demand access to a collection of current offerings for a small monthly fee (typically $5 to $10 per month). This can be an attractive solution for viewers who want to time-shift on their televisions without the hassle of setting up a PVR or working with a download system.
An extreme form of time-shifting is available for programs that are published to DVDs (or Blu-ray discs), which typically become available six to 12 months after a series airs. For very patient viewers, this alternative can provide a very convenient way to watch programs, particularly if they are mobile. With a DVD, viewers can watch content on a television using a disc player, or on a desktop or notebook PC. This gives viewers a wide range of choices for when and where they want to watch their content. For some consumers, those who chose not to subscribe to premium movie channels that produce original content, this might be the only way to watch some of the more famous original programming.
One of the biggest objections to time-shifting comes from advertisers, who rightly fear that many consumers will fast-forward through commercials when they are watching recorded content. Not only that, but when content is time shifted, the value advertising diminishes greatly, particularly for time-sensitive ads for sales, elections, or promos for future programs. Consider what could be accomplished with the alternative delivery platforms described earlier:
- • With network PVRs, new ads could be substituted for old ones, provided there is a commercial arrangement that will work for both the replaced and the replacement advertisers.
- • VOD services can easily sell advertising space in their video streams, either pre-roll (before the program plays) or mid-roll (during the program). Many of the video players can be controlled to prevent ad-skipping, so advertisers can be sure that their ads will be exposed to VOD users.
- • While premium-channel VOD offerings and DVDs are still free from commercials, consumers have repeatedly shown that they are willing to tolerate advertising if it helps reduce their out-of-pocket costs.
EOD: THE ULTIMATE GOAL?
All of these time-shifting technologies are moving in a similar direction—toward giving viewers more choices about when and how they want to watch their favorite television programs. The ultimate goal will be reached when any viewer can watch any content at any time, which can be simply called Everything on Demand or EoD.
EoD would be close to nirvana for most television viewers, by providing a way to view current programming at the time and place of their choosing. A viewer would simply need a powerful user interface that supported personal profiles and a search capability for locating new content. A glimpse of what this could look like is provided by today's Netflix "View Instantly" feature and more developments are on the way.
Most of the major delivery technologies are moving in the general direction of EoD, but business models and overall economics need to be worked out before it becomes widely available, possibly not until well into the next decade. But when EoD does become available it will be the most viewer-friendly delivery platform invented to date. And then even a 2 TB PVR will seem somewhat quaint.
Wes Simpson is a consultant and author of Video Over IP, second edition, now available from Focal Press. Please feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.