Service allows video on demand

Friday, July 5, 2002

— You've put in a hard day. Now you're ready to chill in front of the TV and watch some basket-weaving. Or maybe you've got a taste for motorcycles. Or outer space. Or Shakespeare.

What are the odds you could click to a show devoted to that interest whenever you get the urge?


AP Photo

Matthew Strauss, left, executive vice president and general manager of Mag Rack, and Josh Sapan, president and CEO of Rainbow Media, display Mag Rack, a new video-on-demand information service for cable television. Rainbow Media owns Mag Rack.

It's a slam-dunk thanks to a new cable-TV service called Mag Rack, which, although available so far to just a tiny audience, is a reminder to the rest of us that video-on-demand (VOD) is a reality, after years of delays and disappointments.

The concept for Mag Rack is pretty simple. Navigate to the Mag Rack channel. Choose from more than two dozen narrowly defined topics (narrow for TV, anyway) including bird watching, wedding tips, "Wine World" and "The Bible and You."

Then, within each of these "magazines," the viewer can select any of several stories, all available as video-on-demand � which means you can select the program, then pause, rewind and fast-forward it at will, all through your set-top cable box.

Ready? "Welcome to 'Maximum Science,"' an announcer intones � "bringing you the latest in science when YOU want to see it." And on your TV screen you see a menu of stories (or would that be a table of contents?) with a scientific bent.

Each subject area is replenished by a new "issue" of Mag Rack-produced programming (an hour or more, "chapterized" into blocks) each month, while past "issues" are archived along with the current fare on the cable operator's computer server.

The newsstand experience

In short, Mag Rack seems to be a pretty faithful video equivalent of the newsstand-browsing experience combined with the sporadic way most people like to read their magazines � with the added advantage that Mag Rack is typically packaged with the subscriber's premium service at no extra charge.

"We thought there were large constituencies of viewers who were very passionate about certain subjects, but were being underserved by television, even in the 500-channel universe," says Matthew Strauss, Mag Rack's general manager.

While it might not warrant "a 24/7 digital network," he adds, "each of those micro-niches might be perfect for a VOD service."

Currently the 9-month-old Mag Rack is seen only by Long Island, N.Y., subscribers of Cablevision (parent of Mag Rack as well as the Bravo and American Movie Classics networks), which has announced that in the next few months Mag Rack also will come to areas served by Insight Communications, focused in the Midwest.

Rapidly growing market

Video-on-demand-enabled digital subscribers are a tiny fragment of the nation's 100-plus million TV household. But it's growing: An estimated total of 6 million by the end of 2002 is expected to double a year later.

A recent headline in Electronic Media magazine raised the question, "Is VOD cable's satellite killer?"

In any case, digitally upgrading their systems is one way the cable industry is fighting against rivals like DirecTV, whose services are often bundled with Tivo-like recorders for the customer's home that can store satellite-delivered programming for future playback.

Direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) systems also offer pay-per-view programming at frequent intervals. But full on-demand capability isn't possible so far.

On cable, most video-on-demand consists of movies and other programming (like HBO) already available on other channels. That redundancy factor sets Mag Rack apart, says Strauss � "We are producing content for this new VOD technology and only for VOD."

Industry observers are voicing early approval for Mag Rack.

"It's another weapon cable operators can use to fight off the entrenchment of DBS and market themselves as a leading-edge provider," says Sean Badding of the Carmel Group.

"It's not a killer application, but it's one more way of differentiating themselves from satellite," agrees Adi Kishore, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston.

Whether viewers who can get Mag Rack will watch it is another matter. Kishore cited figures from late 2001 indicating that of five customers with a VOD system, only one of them tried it.

"You've got to educate the viewers on video-on-demand," he said, "and with Mag Rack there's an additional teaching step."

Strauss argues that Mag Rack is a made-to-order way to explain to newcomers the possibilities of VOD.

"We want them to perceive it as more than just a mechanism � taking programming and sticking it on a server � but as a branded, editorial service that becomes synonymous with VOD," he says.

Now, ready for your parenting, car-buying or yoga TV?