Cable, satellite hope high-tech DVRs can keep South Florida customers happy

Not in a million years would Alex Perez have expected to watch a television show called MythBusters, which sounded like some kind of deadly educational bore. But the sleek black cable box attached to his TV set cajoled him: Come on, you might like it. Haven’t you ever wondered whether a motorcycle really could go jumping along rooftops the way they did in that James Bond movie?

“So I watched it, and it was really fascinating seeing how they make these movies, and it was a show I just wouldn’t have ever turned on if someone — or in this case something — hadn’t suggested it,” says Perez, an attorney who lives in Sunny Isles.

Perez is one of the victors in cable TV’s fiercely combative and ever-escalating DVR arms race. Struggling to hold onto viewers tempted to cut their cable cords (and bills) in favor of the Internet’s streaming-video services, cable and satellite companies are offering their customers ever-fancier DVRs that seemingly can do everything for them but microwave their TV dinners.

“For a long time, the big selling point for cable companies was how much stuff we could put on our network and deliver to customer’s homes, the whole promise of the 500-channel universe,” says Dave Isenberg, chief marketing and strategy officer for cable company Atlantic Broadband.

“Now it’s less about volume — everybody has a ton of channels — but, ‘What can I do with it? How do I find the best stuff in all those channels, and how can I watch it on my tablet computer or my phone?’ … The simple basic black cable box that didn’t do anything but play the shows is dead.”

It was Isenberg’s company that provided the black box that recommended MythBusters to Perez. That box is TiVo’s T-6, the newest and mightiest of all DVRs, and it’s now the standard receiver for customers who sign up with Atlantic Broadband, which operates in several cities long the eastern side of Miami-Dade County.

The T-6 — which sells in stores as the TiVo Roamio — is capable of recording six different shows at once and streaming them to computers and cell phones.

It also provides viewer ratings on the excitement of sporting events, names the most popular shows on at any given moment, and offers suggestions for programs based on a viewer’s previous recording history. And it can store up to 150 hours of programming.

“It’s really fantastic,” Perez says. “It makes my previous DVR look absolutely lackluster. … I especially love the recommendations — you can’t just flip through a thousand channels. I think they hit a home run.

The T-6 may be the most impressive weapon in pay television’s growing arsenal of DVRs, but it’s far from the only one. Dish Network’s satellite service gives its customers the Hopper, a DVR that tapes shows without commercials and probably guarantees every lawyer in Hollywood lifetime employment working on the resulting lawsuits.

Another satellite company, DirecTV, has a DVR that lets customers search for shows by speaking into their smart phones. And Comcast has just begun rolling out (although not yet in South Florida) a combination receiver-DVR known as the X-2 that stores recordings not in the box beside your TV set but in the digital cloud.

That allows the stashing of a profound, almost unimaginable, amount of programming. In some of its markets, Comcast is testing a feature it calls Prime Time Replay, in which the evening’s entire lineup of broadcast network shows would be available to a customer who gets home late.

“You arrive at home at, say, 9 p.m., and you haven’t missed a thing, even if you didn’t set any shows to be recorded,” says Matt Strauss, Comcast’s senior vice president of video services. “You just go to the guide, hit the Prime Time Replay button, and everything is there for you watch.”

Using the digital cloud for storage also makes it makes it easier to play the recordings on tablet computers, e-readers and cell phones. “It gives us the ability to truly treat any device as a television,” Strauss says. “Any piece of glass that can render signals in a clear manner can now be thought of as a TV.”

Using the cloud has so many other DVR advantages — for instance, allowing companies to revamp their recording software whenever they want without having to download the changes into every single customer’s home device — that practically everybody agrees it’s the wave of the future.

“It’s going to make everything more seamless for the consumer,” says Tom Elam, a TiVo vice president and general manager of the division that deals with cable operators. “The whole idea of time — when a show is broadcast — is going to become less and less important to viewers.”

His company will begin rolling out its own cloud-based DVR later this year. “The changes are going to be really exciting,” Elam says. “It will enable us to do things like store every channel’s complete programming for the past seven days.

“And if you sit down at the TV half an hour after a game started, and you want to know what happened earlier, no problem — it’ll be right there in the cloud for you to call up on your TV set.”

The rapid changes in DVRs also include the use of apps that allow viewers to easily view Internet videos and programming services. Comcast’s DVRs now have several apps, including the Pandora music service, while TiVo includes about 150, from to YouTube. And TiVo is negotiating to add Netflix later this year.

In fact, on sophisticated DVRs like the T-6, it’s hard to tell where television ends and the Internet begins.

“They look more like one another all the time,” agrees Atlantic Broadband’s Isenberg. “The way that customers are interacting with, engaging with, and consuming TV has changed, and it will continue to change. People are used to searching for things on the Internet, finding what they want to watch, and having a broad library of stuff available instantaneously. TV has got to keep up.”

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