Virgin Media opted for a 'soft' launch for the TiVo platform, installing just "hundreds" of users over the Christmas period (the footprint will be expanded considerably over the coming months). The firm also declined to launch a major marketing push for the service, partially because the TiVo system requires more explanation to customers than traditional electronic programme guides (EPGs).
Speaking at a demo session in London, Virgin Media's head of corporate relations Gareth Mead explained: "For someone who has never had Virgin Media before, this will take quite a lot of explaining, because it's so different in terms of how you interact with it. If you are a Sky customer, for example, the TV guide would be familiar to you but many of the other services would be brand new. When we do an install, we take a lot longer than normal simply because the engineer sits down with the customer and goes through each of the services. The difficult job our advertising and marketing colleagues will have is trying to capture the platform in a message."
Designed to ensure users are "instantly involved in a world of television", the system brings together Virgin's legacy TV platform with the innovations developed by TiVo in the US. The main holding page offers links to the TV guide and VOD platform, along with an in-picture box showing the current or last channel watched. At the top of the page there is a carousel showcasing up to 24 picture links depicting recently searched/viewed programmes, or items that the system has recommended. The most exciting aspect of the TiVo platform is its learning engine, which tracks what sort of programmes, genres and actors the viewer likes, and then throws up content they might enjoy. The set top box comes with the famous TiVo 'peanut' remote control, featuring the 'thumbs up/thumbs down' buttons for rating content in real time. The rating system helps the box to understand the content each user prefers, but the system also taps into the wider TiVo network to find what other users are actively enjoying.
Under the hood, the TiVo box has a dedicated internal 10Mbps cable broadband modem for delivering bandwidth-heavy services without impacting the user's broadband connection. It also has two tuners for watching and recording TV. The My Shows & Recordings section handles the traditional recording functionality, the one big difference being that content is stored in folders for easier organisation. This is particularly important considering that the one terabyte box enables users to store around 500 hours of content. The box records its own programme suggestions in the hard drive, but will always delete its recommendations first if the hard drive reaches capacity.
In terms of the actual EPG, Virgin Media makes no secret of the fact that it is more focused on catch-up and on-demand compared to Sky, which orientates it's EPG around the broadcast channels. The TiVo EPG offers the ability to browse forward seven days of TV listings, but also go seven days back for accessing catch-up content. YouView will also have this feature when it launches, and surely a backwards-facing EPG will soon become the standard format for presenting TV listings on connected-TV platforms. Mead said that the TiVo EPG "blurs the distinction between television and on-demand", freeing the user from the restriction of the schedule. He expressed his belief that the core linear schedule will eventually ebb away into insignificance beyond the big 'water cooler' TV moments, such as the X Factor final or live sport. Mead agrees, though, that the viewing experience always begins and ends with great content.
Catch-Up & On-Demand is presented in pretty much the same was as Virgin's legacy system, including sections for BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and so on, along with a library of films and movies. However, the way people access that content has changed via enhanced search, browse and recommendation functions. The platform offers an "intelligent" search system for tracking down selected programmes, actors or other aspects. Using a combination of algorithms that TiVo claims is better than the technology used by Google, the system throws up a variety of options for any searched term. Inputting 'Hugh Laurie', for example, brings up House, but also the British actor's appearance in The Simpsons and Friends. Likewise, the core search will bring up shows beginning with 'H' and actors connected to House. The system is designed to be like a "rabbit warren", as users link between items, going deeper and deeper into the content library.
The browse options are based on editorial metadata compiled by an in-house team at Virgin Media, presenting content in seasons, such as an upcoming one for the BAFTAs. These run in addition to the usual categories for movies, such as 'Action' and 'Thriller', while sport is split by the actual sport types, such as football, tennis or cricket. All individual shows have more metadata than the previous system, including details on the cast and other available episodes. A Bonus Features section for each programme provides links to other services, such as the Friends page featuring a series of links to YouTube videos of favourite moments from the comedy. It should be noted, though, that web content is not enhanced for the TV, so a video that is grainy on YouTube will be even worse on a 40-inch TV.
Aside the TV and on-demand content, the current platform offers a fairly limited range of digital applications, including YouTube, eBay, Twitter and Play.com. Virgin Media has also provided Weather and Celebrity apps that link directly to its online entertainment portal. It's clear that the apps section is a work in progress, particularly as it's currently far from clear what people actually want in terms of apps for the TV screen. Mead said the cable operator is in talks with a "long list" of companies to develop apps, and plans to open up the platform to a wider variety of creative ideas. However, the TiVo service will never adopt the Google Android approach of a fully open platform. Instead, Virgin Media intends to retain an element of "editorial control".
Mead added: "Our approach is not to bring the internet to the television. Google TV is trying to put a browser on your television screen and that might work for a proportion of the population, but there will also be a huge swathe of the mass market out there for which that will be a very scary experience. With TV, you are paying for a service and for someone to give you a degree of quality."
Mead said that Virgin Media has a "scarily hectic" development programme to improve the service over the next two years. As the box is IP-connected, it can be constantly updated by Virgin with new features to unlock its latent capacity. The box comes with a 10Mbps dedicated modem, but Virgin has the ability to increase that to 20Mbps via a software patch for heavy users, or for future services such as 3D content streaming. Likewise, the box currently has two active tuners for watching and recording content, but Virgin plans to activate the product's third tuner later in the year to expand the viewing options. TiVo offers QWERTY keyboard and iPad controllers in the US, and Mead said that it would not be a stretch to expect that they will both launch at some point in the UK.
Virgin Media will start aggressively promoting the TiVo service in the second quarter of this year, with a focus on upgrading existing customers. Anyone wanting to get the TiVo service will need to pay £199 (plus a £40 installation charge), along with a £26.50 monthly subscription for the XL package when bundled with a Virgin phone line, or £32.50 without. Mead said that the high price reflects the fact that it is a "premium product", aimed at the heavy TV users. However, the firm has ambitions in the long run to offer incentives to subscribers on its legacy platform to move over to TiVo, including possible offers and service "tiers".
The TiVo service is widely being viewed as a direct challenger to YouView - the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, TalkTalk, BT and Arqiva joint venture that aims to upgrade the Freeview platform to support video on-demand and internet services. Virgin Media was among a number of companies to complain to Ofcom about YouView, before the regulator cleared the project for launch either this year or in 2012. Mead believes that YouView - formerly Project Canvas - will ultimately be struck down by the inherent conflict of interest between its partners, as the public service broadcasters want to prioritise their content, but BT and TalkTalk intend to improve the modest performance of their digital TV platforms, BT Vision and TalkTalk TV.
"They (the YouView partners) are all pulling in different directions," said Mead. "We all know that the people behind the partnership will editorialise their content and make it the most prominent. The commercial incentive for ITV to put their content most prominent is overriding. Because we don't have content, we are just providing a platform that I think levels the playing field. The public service broadcaster's response to connected-TV in general has been one of concern. They have gone away and built their own [platform], but they shouldn't be worried about connected-TV because if they genuinely believe that their content is the best then it will always come to the top."