Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street was on trial in West Palm Beach. In a market test of "video on demand," how many viewers wanted to buy the continuously playing special "Sing Yourself Silly" for 79 cents? Also in the test: a National Geographic Special for 99 cents.

'Video-on-demand' looks good for the kind of narrowcasting that public TV does

Originally published in Current, Nov. 15, 1993

By Steve Behrens

Programs from public TV are doing well in a "near-on-demand" cable TV experiment and even better in a real "on-demand" situation, according to PBS.

Preliminary results from the ongoing Viewer-Controlled Television (VCTV) market test in Littleton, Colo., imply that strong narrow-interest programs stand to gain where viewers can choose from a broad selection of them.

Among the VCTV viewers with the widest catalogue of "on-demand" programs available to them, public TV programs accumulated 6 percent or more of the orders in half of the first 10 months of the experiment, and as much as 13 percent in one month, said Jacqueline Weiss, PBS's liaison to the Colorado test.

Up against old and new movies, public TV programs' percentage of orders was at least as high as typical public TV audience shares and often much higher, she noted.

And the viewers were ordering up these PBS reruns--Bradshaw on Homecoming, Infinite Voyage, 3-2-1 Contact, Victory Garden, Voices and Visions and others--despite a charge of $1.29 per episode.

Though the buy rates in Colorado looked "promising," the 300-home experiment is too small "to put much stock in the results," said Peter Downey, senior v.p. for program business affairs at PBS.

He expects to see more reliable data from a much larger series of Your Choice TV experiments just begun by a corporate affiliate of the Discovery Channel in West Palm Beach, Fla. As in Colorado, PTV producers are providing a selection of programs for the test.

In Colorado: two ways to go

Though it's smaller, the VCTV experiment in Colorado included a simulation of the "on-demand" service that many technologists believe will be widely available from the digital video-dialtone services that may succeed today's cable TV.

The trial was put together last year by three corporate behemoths--US West, AT&T and MCI--in the middle-class Denver suburb of Littleton. Two modes of operation are being tested in the 300-household sample:

Initially, half of the 300 households were offered one service and half the other, but since July all test households have both modes available.

Though an on-demand service like Take One presumably would require advanced automation and high-capacity "video servers" to dish out the movies, the small Colorado test got the same effect by using employees to load tapes into VCRs.

AT&T software handles the orders. To order from the catalogue, a viewer enters the four-digit program number with the remote control, and presses another button to confirm the price.

On-demand, fairly new movies sell for $3.99, older ones for $2.69 and TV programs for $1.29. The Hits at Home service, which is less convenient and offers a smaller selection, charges somewhat less.

Though the prices were higher than those charged in local video stores, customers in VCTV focus groups were glad they didn't have to travel to and from the store, rewind the tapes and pay late fees.

With its far larger selection, the on-demand service Take One drew twice as many orders for PTV programs as the prescheduled Hits at Home service, according to Weiss. VCTV has not released buy rates, but--consistent with Weiss's observation--the experiment team announced that "hits" made up a lower proportion of orders in the on-demand service.

The results appear to be influenced by both channel capacity and economics. In the prescheduled Hits at Home service, with its lesser capacity, the programmers gave the advantage to the popular programs. A movie like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III started every half-hour in October, while Nature: "Volcano Watchers" appeared just two or four times a day.

Hendricks reinvents reruns

The separate series of Your Choice TV tests, run by Your Choice TV Inc., a subsidiary of John Hendricks' Discovery Communications, will try a twist on the "near-on-demand" approach.

It's being sold as a convenient way to catch especially good programs without staying home to see them ("See What You've Been Missing").

"If you've ever forgotten to tape a show, or had trouble programming your VCR, you'll appreciate the hassle-free convenience of Your Choice TV," says the announcer on the "barker channel" that serves as a guide to offerings.

Between promos for shows, a team of comic actors perform skits that cast the TV schedule as a tyrant and the VCR timing mechanism as an unfathomable mystery.

Discovery plans to try Your Choice TV in 2,500 households at each of eight cable systems around the country, or a total of 20,000 households, according to spokeswoman Katherine Urbon. The first site, West Palm Beach, launched Oct. 18 [1993]. Other sites will include suburban Chicago, Columbus, Dayton, Nassau County (Long Island), San Diego, Spokane and Syracuse.

Each program will roll-over continuously on its own channel--limiting the selection at any given time. Cable systems will devote eight to 24 channels to the experiment, Urbon said.

With less room for variety than the Colorado experiment, Your Choice TV will have just a few offerings from public TV producers--initially Sesame Street's "Sing Yourself Silly" home-video release and the bloody National Geographic Special: "Eternal Enemies: Lions & Hyenas."

Other entries will include ABC's soap opera All My Children, which will change episodes daily, and weekly shows like 20/20, which will change weekly. Discovery itself is offering its Learning Channel series Submarines: Sharks of Steel. NBC plans to offer shows in other markets, and CBS has been invited to do so.

Prices range from 79 cents for Big Bird and the soap opera to 99 cents for hyenas and Barbara Walters.

As in the Colorado test, viewers can order programs by pressing buttons on their remote controls. Ordering a show unlocks it and makes it available for repeat viewing for the rest of its run on Your Choice TV.

Hendricks' view

To John Hendricks, chairman of Discovery Communications and the mover behind Your Choice TV, it makes sense to devote dozens of cable channels to a small number of hits.

Looking at figures on videocassette rentals, Hendricks has pointed out that 80 percent of video store revenue comes from just eight to ten hit movies a month.

Though his Your Choice TV project concentrates on choice TV reruns, which he calls the Best of Television, he's also interested in selling big movies in competition with video stores.

In an interview on Neal Freeman's public TV show TechnoPolitics last spring, Hendricks observed that "consumers are willing to go to extraordinary means, and really extraordinary expense, to get control of one video"--driving miles to a video shop and back, and sometimes buying cassettes, as they do from the Discovery Channel.

Yet, on the same broadband line with all those roll-overs of hot movies, Hendricks said he sees a need for public television.

As cable operators attach price tags to more and more of the channels, won't the TV bill rise beyond the means of lower-income families? he was asked.

Hendricks at first reacted defensively, pointing out that nobody expects books or magazines to be distributed without charge.

But what about libraries?

"Well, I think that's the great potential and the great role for public broadcasting. ... [y]ou can't expect the government to buy people television. But I think for those people who don't have the means, there should be some continuous subsidy for PBS so that PBS can provide that, so that no child, no matter what the income status of the home, is denied access to programs that can inspire and enlighten."



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Later article: The digital storage banks of "video on demand" are already being used -- for other purposes -- by PBS and other broadcasters.


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