Cable, satellite providers merge TV, Internet and phone

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It's the age of do-it-yourself television programming.

Love Meryl Streep? Speak but her name to the Xfinity X1 mobile phone or tablet app, and a list of any movie or television show currently available on cable or through Comcast's On Demand pops up on the television screen.

Use the tablet app's guide or the cable remote to click on a title. Watch, record or rent.

Comcast rolls out new DVR service

Comcast is rolling out its Xfinity X1 DVR service for new customers in the Pittsburgh area. This is its latest product to integrate home computers with television sets. (Video courtesy of Comcast; 1/19/2014)

It's not complicated, but there is a learning curve. And viewers best get used to it, because signup for X1 -- which becomes available in Western Pennsylvania to new subscribers or as an upgrade to those paying for the lower tier of services -- arrives Monday.

The new device, which is connected via HDMI cable and requires an Internet connection, will have a 500 MB hard drive and allow users to record four shows at once while watching a fifth (right now it's only two). X1 remotes use radio frequency so they don't have to be pointed at the television.

So, no more yelling at the dog to get out of the way of the DVR.

It's hardly the only shiny new tech on the horizon, but for Pittsburgh, it's the first. X1 rolled out in a few other markets last year, including Philadelphia, with X2 already in the works.

"This is all about finding what you want to watch, easily," said Robert Grove, Comcast Keystone region vice president for public relations. "We'll only be building on it."

Of course, subscribers need not upgrade if they're content with the status quo. Cable providers realize that a certain older demographic doesn't want to fool around with menus and windows. Nonetheless, younger seniors in their 60s are online and use online services such as Amazon, said Greg Wells, director of product management for Comcast's Keystone region.

Tutorials -- both video and step-by-step written descriptions -- are available onscreen.

Comcast and Verizon are the largest providers of bundled cable, Internet and phone service in this area. Neither provides subscription figures, but they are working mightily to win over the "cord cutters" who have abandoned traditional cable television.

The DISH satellite network's Sling technology is another option; DISH recently unveiled its latest Hopper upgrade at the 2014 CES International in Las Vegas.

Dubbed the "Super Joey," this latest Hopper allows users to record eight shows at once and can pair with LG smart TVs. There is also a "Wireless Joey" in the works, a virtual version that will require no physical cable connection.

The virtual Joeys also can be paired with Sony's PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3, eliminating the need for additional devices in your living room.

A major area of new-and-improved Verizon products will be the launch of a video media server. This VMS will triple the number of HD shows consumers can currently record, from two to six and double its hard drive to 1 terabyte.

"This is something that will be coming later this year for FiOS customers," said Lee Gierczynski, Verizon manager for media relations.

As viewers' appetites for video on demand grows -- Comcast offers more than 49,000 titles, Verizon, 45,000 -- providers recognize that competition from the likes of Netflix and Amazon has upped the ante.

Although streaming to a variety of devices remains the primary delivery method for a growing array of entertainment and information, the ability to download to mobile as part of the TV Everywhere concept is also a huge draw.

Is anyone just sitting at home on the couch anymore?

They should be. Comcast Xfinity's X1 is tailor-made for home viewing. Company representatives presented a demonstration last week that emphasized a seamless integration of traditional On Demand programming with an array of bells and whistles.

Turn on the TV, press the "Guide" button on the remote and the viewer is presented with choices such as a grid that resembles the current Xfinity guide, or On Demand, or a search function.

Almost every choice yields a series of colorful information boxes similar to those on iTunes or Netflix.

Select an episode of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother," and not only is there plot synopsis, but links to bios of the stars, as well as other available programs featuring Neil Patrick Harris or Josh Radnor.

For movies, there are links to ratings from online sites Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster.

Returning to the home page, or selecting the "Last" button on the remote presents boxes featuring the last nine programs viewed, including On Demand shows. Searches can be done by channel, names, words, titles and time frames.

Requesting "Pirates" yields Major League Baseball content, as well as Seton Hall University basketball options and the 2003 Disney film, "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Eventually, voice mail and email will be accessible via X1, which could morph into X2 here in a year or two. One of the advantages of the software-based programming, according to Mr. Grove, is the ability to update the system with little fuss. He said X1 was updated more than 200 times in the year since it was activated in other markets.

There are also "dashboard" apps within the platform, such as sports, Pandora, traffic and weather (although time and temperature are always on discreet display on the lower right corner of the screen). More apps are expected to be added.

Sports is by far the glitziest display on the X1 platform. Pro football, hockey and baseball, college football and basketball are the foundation content behind this app. It's possible to check scores across the NFL or NHL, with updates in real time.

For example, you can track tonight's San Francisco 49ers/Seattle Seahawks NFC final while watching "Downton Abbey." On one part of the screen viewers can access the score and real-time information or see a virtual ball placement on a green football field icon.

"You can image how big this is going to be in Pittsburgh," Mr. Grove said. "Say you're watching the Penguins and these are all of the current scores. Click on it, see how much time is left in the game. Or you can just say 'watch this' and it takes you to that game."

Of course, accessing certain content such as NHL Center Ice or premium channels such as HBO or Starz will require a subscription. Mr. Grove said that the cost to rent the new X1 device is the same as the old DVR.

Although sign-up prices for XfinityTriple and Double Play can vary depending on market, Comcast was offering online Triple Play deals of $99 a month for 12 months, with a $100 prepaid card bonus, last Wednesday.

Verizon Triple Play bundles online ranged from $144.99 with a $400 prepaid card to $79.99 for the first 12 months. DISH subscriptions work a bit differently; satellite bundles include Internet from other providers. Online offers last week ranged from $49.99 and up but those did not include phone service.

DirectTV advertises a satellite entertainment service that allows users to store up to 200 hours of HD programming as well as recording five shows at once. Online packages start at $29.99 a month.

Bad news for existing Xfinity Triple Play customers: no trading in their old "legacy set box" devices until the demand is met for new and upgrading accounts. This, according to Comcast officials, will be rectified "in the coming months."

Enticing viewers to watch traditional TV in non-traditional ways is vital for cable providers. It took a while for networks to pay attention to the evolving patterns of viewership, but a recent press release from CBS is telling. It lauded "The Good Wife's" "multiplatform growth," including the usual Nielsen ratings (11.74 million viewers and a 2.9 rating among the 25-54 demo).

The release also noted that VOD (video on demand) viewing for "The Good Wife" was up almost 19 percent over the previous year, with close to a million viewers. And, it was the "most watched [show] on Amazon Prime Internet Video."

Change might not be welcomed by everyone, but in this case, it's certainly entertaining.

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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