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DISH Network introduces DVR-based ‘catch-up’

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DISH Network has found a way to deliver four channels of premium HD broadcast TV on a single satellite tuner and is using the innovation to enable customers to record the four big broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC for three hours of primetime every evening, and have that content available on-demand as DVR recordings for eight days. This innovative approach to catch-up TV is one of the new features available with DISH Network Hopper, a whole-home HD DVR solution that includes the Joey IP client set-top boxes and allows customers to watch content on up to four TVs at once, with a massive 2Tb or storage. The new product is the highlight of CES for the U.S. DTH satellite operator.

According to Stephanie Pence, Vice President of Communications at DISH Network, 60% of customer DVR recordings are made during primetime and of these, 53% are from the four major broadcast networks. So the introduction of what the company is calling PrimeTime Anytime meets a large part of the demand for catch-up TV. Importantly, these channels can be watched live and recorded at the same time, and the content is made available throughout the home on the different televisions, each of which has full DVR control including live pause. With three tuners in total, Hopper makes six HD channels available for viewing and/or recording at the same time.

According to Vivek Khemka, VP of Consumer Technology at DISH Network, the company is not compressing the four network channels any more than usual and there is no compromise in picture quality. The ability to process four broadcast channels on a single tuner results from what he calls end-to-end optimisations in how the content is managed, including at the uplink, plus the huge 750 MHz processing power available in the Hopper DVR, which uses a Broadcom chipset.

“In the past, because of limitations in processing power, a tuner could only process one stream of content at a time but because of the increased power and optimisations, the tuner can now look at and process four streams at the same time,” Khemka explains.

DISH Network highlighted the fact that the catch-up content, which is treated like any other DVR recordings, is available instantly after recording, in contrast to some online catch-up services. The introduction of what is effectively a small scale satellite delivered and DVR-based catch-up TV offer (albeit a small and carefully targeted one) is part of a major increase in the content that is being made available to DISH customers. This also includes a dramatic expansion in IP on-demand content and push-VOD, mainly thanks to the new Blockbuster@Home service. Joe Clayton, CEO at DISH, made it clear that his company does not share the view on Wall Street that Blockbuster is a tainted brand, declaring that for mainstream America the DVD and streaming service “means family and movies”.

Speaking on the eve of CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, Clayton made it clear that the launch and marketing of Hopper and Joey, combined with a new DISH brand image and logo, new advertising, new-look website, new content partnerships and a new management team represents nothing less than a relaunch for the company, which is looking to reinvigorate its business with improved technology and content offers, more consumer-friendly marketing (thus names like Hopper and Joey in favour of the established ViP xxx labels  and a “laser-like focus on attracting new subscribers, keeping existing ones and containing costs”. He is is confident that the new hybrid whole-home service, featuring an ultra-fast User Interface and small form factor DVR, will resonate with consumers.

DISH clearly has the Internet service aggregators and connected TV manufacturers in its sights with its expanded on-demand offers and the introduction of the SiriusXM satellite radio service that makes 73 channels of commercial free music available, displayed on the programme guide, with the cover art and song details appearing on the TV screen when the tracks are playing. Music was a surprisingly important theme of the DISH Network announcement, with Clayton declaring that music is under-served in the Pay TV business today. “Nobody provides a wide variety and it is hard to find on any multichannel provider, but not any more.”

Hopper and Joey is the latest example of a major Pay TV operator launching a next-generation platform to offset the threat of cord cutting. The company is boasting that its hard drive, at 2Tb, is the biggest available. This, presumably, is also an attempt to pre-empt the efforts in the cable industry to introduce powerful multi-tuner media gateways that will convert QAM broadcasts into IP content and make broadcast and VOD programming available on multiple screens throughout the home. Like many of the cable efforts, Hopper is routing the (satellite) television onto a MoCA IP home network, alongside any streamed (or push-VOD) on-demand video.

Stephanie Pence highlighted the consumer trends that DISH Network believes plays into its hands. These include the fact that people are watching more TV rather than less, demanding it when and where they want it, and looking for converged experiences that include music. “87% of American homes still subscribe to a Pay TV service. Only a small group of homes do not have Pay TV and that is driven by economics rather than the availability of online video,” she argued, referring to the so-called cord cutters. “We know that the onset of online subscription movie providers is just one indication of the desire for more movies.”

She quoted Diffusion Group figures showing that 83% of Netflix users also have Pay TV, and Leichtman Research Group statistics showing that 48% of American homes have multiple HDTV sets, with the average being three per home, and that 54% of people believe whole home access to HDTV is very important.

Meeting the need for more on-demand content, DISH has expanded the Blockbuster Movie Pass service, announced last autumn, with Blockbuster@Home, which includes a mailing service for DVDs and games plus streaming, with a library of 10,000 assets. The company offers more than 2,000 titles of prime HBO and Cinemax programming and movies. All of this, and the primetime broadcaster ‘catch-up’, is available on the PC, tablet and mobile devices as well as the television.

The push-VOD service, DISH Unplugged, provides the most popular titles, with up to 10 new titles added per day, for customers who do not have a good enough broadband connection for IP delivery. And separately, the company has introduced a broadband satellite offer targeting rural America.

Hopper has wide ranging connectivity, supporting MoCA, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee. The Bluetooth means consumers can connect headphones to the DVR wirelessly and ZigBee means a remote control will still work when the device is hidden behind cabinet doors. Thanks to ZigBee, the DVR can talk back to the remote control, a capability that is being exploited for the neat ‘Remote control locator’ function, where users press a button on the DVR and the remote control begins bleeping to identify its whereabouts. The system supports DLNA and this means personal music collections and photos can be brought to the large screen TV.

The Joey client is an IP-only device the length of a one dollar bill, featuring the same 750 MHz of processing power as Hopper and able to support all the features of the central DVR. It enables live pause and pause-and-resume between rooms. Viewers can manage the DVR from every room in the home. Meanwhile, the new UI is faster, more graphics-rich (including channel graphics) and there is a built-in web browser for apps like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Flickr, among others. Consumer advertising for the new platform will start in the first quarter.

For Joe Clayton, Hopper and Joey represenet the start of a new era. “They represent fun, family, wholesome home entertainment and give personality and attitude to the product itself. We want our products to be perceived more like the mobile phone industry, like the original Motorola RAZR, the Apple iPhone and Droid. We want people to have passion for our new products and demand them by name,” he said.

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