New service helps viewers find their shows

Sunday, July 7, 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?

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.

Video equivalent

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 will also come to areas served by Insight Communications, focused in the Midwest.

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?"

Fighting rivals

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.

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