TV viewers may get to choose lineup RTC

April 27, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Before too long, you might be able to watch Thursday night's "Seinfeld" on Friday night even if you forgot to program your VCR.

In fact, you might be able to watch many of the most popular television shows any time of the week.

After three years of testing, Bethesda-based Your Choice TV is rolling out a service that allows users to shift television programs from the time the network airs them to when the viewer wants to see them.

Your Choice, a subsidiary of the company that owns the Discovery Channel, signaled its decision by announcing this week that it has signed an agreement with a Tele-Communications Inc. satellite subsidiary for transmission of the service to cable systems and other program providers starting in "the coming weeks."

While the company did not formally announce the commercial launch of the service, General Manager Amy Stover left no doubt that Your Choice soon would be up and running.

"It's real," she said. "You don't go up in the air in terms of huge satellite costs if you're not real."

Your Choice TV's business concept is to gain the rights to replay TV shows almost immediately after they are first shown. Your Choice would then package them in a pay-per-view service to the media companies, which would then resell them to consumers.

The company believes that viewers who shun the hassle of programming their VCRs, forget to set them or hear about a program after it's aired will pay for the convenience.

No consumer prices have been announced, but early market trials focused on prices of about $1 to see a network program at a "shifted" time.

Ms. Stover said yesterday that the company has acquired rights to a sufficient selection of programming to launch the service, but she would not identify any specific show except to agree that "Seinfeld" was the kind of program Your Choice would be interested in.

Ms. Stover said Your Choice will be offered to a variety of media, including cable TV operators, direct broadcast satellite, so-called wireless cable" and telephone companies' planned video dial-tone services.

Stephen Effros, president of the National Cable Television Association, said Your Choice is the first service of its kind to become operational. "There are a lot of operators who are anticipating the day when they can offer something like Your Choice TV to their customers," Mr. Effros said.

However, Mr. Effros said few cable operators are currently able to take advantage of the service. He said few cable systems are equipped for Your Choice's digital transmissions or have a sufficient block of channels available to devote to "time-shifted" programming.

In addition, a full-scale version of Your Choice will require a digital set-top box, he said, adding that those have yet to come to the market at an affordable price.

"It's not going to sweep the country tomorrow," he said. "They are probably positioning themselves for the introduction of digital boxes that will allow us to vastly expand our channels."

Stephen Burch, regional vice president of Comcast Corp., said that he hasn't heard from Your Choice yet but that he expects to soon.

"That type of product will be something we'd be interested in," he said.

Mr. Burch said Comcast Cablevision of Maryland is among the few cable systems that will be in a position to take advantage of Your Choice's potential in the near future. Comcast recently announced a $100 million upgrade that will double the channel capacity of its systems in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties over the next two years.

Ms. Stover said her company is aware of the cable industry's technological problems in adopting Your Choice and has devised a menu of packages that adapt to different technologies.

Your Choice will be able to offer more shows than the number of channels a cable system has to devote to it through a technology called digital compression.

The company said that initially its service will be "near video on demand" -- meaning that programs might begin at regular intervals such as every 10 or 15 minutes. Your Choice said TCI's National Digital Television Center would help it develop technology for video-on-demand service -- that is, programs that start instantly when customers request them.

Your Choice can expect a warm reception in the market because its parent has influential friends. Among the investors in Discovery are TCI, Cox Cable Communications and Newhouse Broadcasting.

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