Consider this scenario: You come home, flip on the television& and order, through your local cable company, a pay-per-view movie to watch that night. Instead of consulting the cable guide for movie times, you determine when you want to watch the movie, then lock in the delivery time with the press of a button on your television controller.
Once the movie begins, you needn't fear missing even a line of dialogue from an inopportune popcorn break or phone call. That's because you know you can hit the "pause" button at any time to temporarily freeze-frame your special-delivery movie, part a standard cable service that allows customers to see exactly what they want to see, when they want to see it.
Welcome to the world of "video-on-demand," an idea that has been more of a movieholic's dream than a technological reality.
Comcast Cablevision, the cable provider in Baltimore County, plans to test market a video-on-demand service this summer. A similar test by Colorado-based Tele-Communications Inc. is set to get under way this summer in a Denver suburb.
The debut of video-on-demand will mark a milestone for the cable industry, which has been slow to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to new-age video services.
That is because, despite the hubbub over video-on-demand, cable companies still aren't sure how well the public will respond. As a result, cable companies have been slow to invest in the expensive new hardware that would be required to offer the services on a regular basis.
Comcast and Tele-Communications hope their trials will prove the market potential for the new service, allowing them to plan their capital expenditures accordingly.
On Wall Street, conventional wisdom holds that it isn't a matter of whether video-on-demand catches on but when.
"The biggest question now is the timing of how long it takes to become a big deal rather than if it will become a big deal," says Ned Zachar, a cable analyst with Duff & Phelps in Chicago. "The question is if the cable companies should make the investment [in new equipment now] or wait a few years. That's the issue they're trying to resolve in their minds now."
Comcast's trial service, which will be available to about 1,500 homes in Baltimore County, will allow customers to select movies and arrange show times around their own schedules. Viewers will get to pick from about 200 movie titles offered nightly and then schedule the movies to run any time during the 24-hour period.
As an added convenience, customers will be able to "pause" their pay-per-view movie at any time by hitting the pause button on the remote controller.
Comcast, which has 3 million customers nationwide, selected Baltimore County to introduce the service because of the size of the system and its relative proximity to company headquarters in Philadelphia, a company spokesman said. The Baltimore County system has 160,000 customers, making it Comcast's largest.
Although Comcast hasn't selected a test area, company officials are considering the more populated parts of the county, such as Towson, Catonsville and Essex. The service will be sold to the first 1,500 subscribers to sign up in the designated area.
Charges for the new service have not been determined, but a Comcast spokesman predicted that a movie would cost $3.99, the current rate for a pay-per-view movie.
If the trial goes well, the service will be continued and expanded as demand warrants and technological improvements allow.
The Tele-Communications trial will be limited to about 450 homes for an 18-month period. That trial will offer customers a choice of up to 2,000 movie titles.
Industry observers say video-on-demand offers a chance to meld the choice and convenience of a video store with the technological prowess of a billion-dollar cable system.
The combination could be potent enough to change the structure of the cable industry, said Hal Krisbergh, president of Jerrold Communications, a leading hardware developer for the cable industry. Jerrold, based in Hatboro, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, is providing equipment for the Baltimore and Denver trials.
"This is one of those major technological changes that changes the structure of the industry," Mr. Krisbergh said.
"It broad-jumps one of the key issues, which is what to do with all those channels. . . . Video-on-demand allows you to have whatever you want, whenever you want it," he said. "The technology allows the consumer to have, if you will, his or her own channel."
Jerrold and Comcast, which have a long history of cooperative ventures, are figuring out how to make the technological pieces fit together for this summer's test. Jerrold will provide the necessary hardware and software, and Comcast will implement and oversee the service.