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SeaChange Brings Social Networking to VOD

Video-on-demand supplier SeaChange International developed a new version of its Axiom management software that will let cable customers manage their on-demand viewing through a personalized Web portal and make program recommendations to their friends that will instantly show up in their TV’s electronic program guide.

The new social-networking feature, called Affinity, is just one of the new capabilities of SeaChange’s Axiom On Demand 5.0 software.

SeaChange -- which established itself as a supplier of video servers for ad insertion and video-on-demand -- increased its focus on software development in recent years as large customers like Comcast demanded that its video-management software be made to work with other vendors’ server hardware.

While the shift to a software-focused model initially raised concerns over SeaChange’s long-term future, the Acton, Mass.-based company proved that its software can work with third-party hardware such as Motorola and Concurrent Computer VOD servers. It is now seeking to capitalize on that intensive software development by bringing new applications to the consumer and offering cable operators better reporting on VOD consumption.

“We want to take our software beyond the back office and bring it into the consumer experience,” said Alan Hoff, senior director of VOD solutions for SeaChange.

The major goal of Affinity is to make VOD a more personalized experience and help consumers to better navigate through a rapidly increasing slate of on-demand content. The way on-demand content is presented to consumers in the EPG is limited by current set-top-box technology, noted Hoff, making VOD more unwieldy as more content is offered.

“The customer is feeling abused by the fact that they can’t manage that content effectively,” he added.

But using a Web interface on a PC, or even a mobile phone, offers both an alternative and way to customize viewing. With Affinity, viewers can set personalized preferences on their Web portal that are then communicated to a database server at the operator’s headend. The information is then transferred to SeaChange’s new Axiom back-office software, which inserts the changes into the EPG the viewer sees when he or she turns on their TV set and uses their remote to watch VOD, thus creating a personalized on-demand experience.

The other big push with Affinity is using social networking to drive VOD consumption. SeaChange believes viewers who receive recommendations on VOD content, either from a friend or from its own software-based recommendation engine, are more likely to view it. That would help to drive more VOD consumption and, thus, create additional on-demand revenues for operators.

Affinity’s embedded recommendation engine considers factors such as content use, subscriber history and profiling to automatically promote movies and programs according to customer preference. It also lets cable subscribers use the Web portal to write recommendations, rate content and share recommendations with friends and family. SeaChange took advantage of social-networking site Facebook’s software-developer kit to make a widget that works with Facebook, Hoff said, which means that “everything you can do inside Affinity you can do inside Facebook.”

Another significant new feature within Axiom On Demand 5.0 is ReStart TV, which provides essentially the same functionality as Time Warner Cable’s “Start Over,” an application that lets viewers tuning in late to a show jump back to the beginning of the program but blocks fast-forwarding through commercials. Comcast has said that it will also offer “StartOver” functionality this year, but SeaChange won’t confirm whether its ReStart TV product will serve as the underlying technology.

Nonetheless, Hoff said he expects ReStart TV to be widely deployed in the near future. He noted that the positive feedback to Start Over -- which doesn’t require advance planning, like set-top digital-video recorders -- proves that consumers have embraced the value proposition of gaining spontaneity in their primetime viewing in exchange for watching the commercials.

“If the only price is to sit through the advertising, then that’s a very reasonable tradeoff for the customer,” he added.