Cablevision Thinks Outside the Box

Cablevision Systems Corp. is launching a ground-breaking technical trial Monday in which its subscribers will record TV shows and movies on servers on its network rather than on set-top boxes in their homes.

By shifting the recording to storage devices at its equipment headends, Cablevision will not have to invest in set-tops with hard drives for customers who want to record programs. Instead, every digital set-top automatically becomes a digital recorder.

The Bethpage, N.Y.-based operator will also never have to send out installers in trucks to set up, fix or replace recording equipment in customer homes. And eventually, it will be able to insert different ads for different viewers into recorded programs each time they are played back.

The trial is taking place in Cablevision’s home base of Long Island, N.Y. Subscribers in fewer than 1,000 households will be given the chance to store 80 gigabytes of data, or about 25 hours of programming, on Cablevision servers. The service will be free-of-charge to the participants.

Customers who sign up for the remote-storage digital-video-recorder service will be sent new remote controls to activate the service. Consumers will have full pause, rewind and fast-forward capabilities, and they will be able to keep programs in their storage binds as long as they want.

Monthly fees for the network-based DVR service have not been set. Cablevision currently offers customers set-tops with either standard-definition or HD recording capabilities at $9.95 per month.

If all goes well, Cablevision -- which serves 3 million subscribers, all told -- plans a broader rollout of the service later this year. In the commercial rollout, customers will be charged a monthly fee for storing and playing back the programs they record.

Programming networks could object to what they might consider unauthorized copying by the cable companies of their copyrighted works.

A somewhat similar service called Mystro was developed earlier in this decade by Time Warner Cable, in which it planned to store one week’s worth of all programs that appeared on its systems for playback by viewers.

But Time Warner was never able to get permission from programmers to record and store their content on its servers. Programmers said the existing affiliation agreements did not allow for such recording and storage

Cablevision, the nation’s sixth-largest cable-system operator, believes its recording service is on safe legal ground since the user is initiating the copying, not the company.

Cable-programming executives said they could not comment on the Cablevision trial, citing a lack of information. But one network programming executive reserved judgment on the legality of Cablevision’s move.

“There are potential copyright issues and Cablevision could end up having to go to us programmers to license content,” the executive said.

For more on Cablevision’s network-DVR trial, please see Matt Stump’s story on page six of Monday’s issue of Multichannel News.