Cable Operators Mull Remote Storage DVRs

According to reports in the New York Times and USA Today, both Time Warner and Cablevision are prepping new DVR-like capabilities for their cable services, testing the boundaries of “fair use” of television content in a bid to offer new services to consumers.

Cablevision reportedly plans to begin testing a “remote storage” DVR system (RS-DVR) which would enable subscribers to record and time-shift television programming using existing set-top cable boxes rather than dedicated DVR units. Subscribers would configure the service using their existing set-top cable boxes, choosing in advance which shows to record, but the programming would be recorded and stored by Cablevision rather than on the subscribers set-top box. Users could then play back the material from Cablevision’s servers.

Cablevision plans to begin testing the service on Long Island in the second quarter of 2006; reportedly, subscribers will be able to record up to 80 GB of programming (enough for about 45 hours of television) and record up to two programs simultaneously while watching a previously-recorded show. Although the storage costs of a broadly available RS-DVR service are formidable, presumably, RS-DVR services offer some economy of scale for the cable operators: Cablevision probably doesn’t need to keep a separate copy of an episode of Desperate Housewives for every customer who wanted to record it: presumably, they can get by with a handful of copies for each individual market.

On another front, Time Warner has reportedly started early talks with broadcast networks regarding a new “instant re-run” service. Under the service, Time Warner would record popular television programming and offer subscribers the ability to call up that programming on demand as soon as broadcast has completed. Although few details have been released, Time Warner would record top networking programming (based on Neilsen ratings data) and offer access to recorded shows to subscribers paying an additional fee on top of their normal cable bill.

RS-DVR capabilities are compelling for cable companies because they can bring DVR features to customers without incurring the cost of sending a technician to a residence and installing a set-top box with a DVR: existing digital set-top boxes would be sufficient to access the service. However, RS-DVR capabilities are certain to rub some television programmers and networks the wrong way, cutting into the market for downloads of programming via legal download and/or video-on-demand services. And litigation may not be far off: fair use right give consumers some leeway in recording and time-shifting broadcast programming, but those some rights don’t apply to commercial entities building a business around recording and redistributing broadcast content.