US Report: VCR-PC hybrid adds up to interactive TV

Add a hard drive to a TV and what do you get? An interactive TV that can be controlled like a VCR -- at least that's the answer from startup Replay Networks Inc.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

The Californian company next week begins testing its ReplayTV service which allows users of its appliances to pause, rewind, and fast forward any television program. It additionally lets users record shows for later viewing. A poor man's video-on-demand service? Larry Gerbrandt, senior vice president with media watcher Paul Kagan Associates doesn't think so. "This is like having a video server on your TV," he said. "It is video on demand without having to have a 2-way cable system."

The service also adds intelligence to your TV, said Gerbrandt. "You can tell it you want to record all Friends, ER and Star Trek episodes and it will track them down and record them," he said. "It is the coolest TV box to come along in a long time."

The ReplayTV box connects with the Replay Network Service through a telephone line to download TV programming schedules and occasional software updates. By entering in shows of interest, the user can record the shows for later viewing. Better yet, the service is free. "Up to now, we've all been slaves to television schedules, but those days are over," said Anthony Wood, CEO of Replay Networks, in a statement. The ReplayTV appliance's two 13.7GB hard drives can hold up to 28 hours of digital-satellite-quality video.

The service will work with today's TVs and phone lines, but there is always room to grow. "There is a huge amount of bandwidth between 1a.m. and 6a.m. that is vastly underutilised," said Gerbrandt, who envisions TV networks running popular movies and shows -- to be replayed later -- during the graveyard shift.

Replay Networks plans to make its living from license fees and sponsorships of "ReplayZones" -- collections of theme-based programs, such as a "Siskel and Ebert" Zone or a Science Fiction Zone. By using such a model, Replay Networks avoids privacy-threatening advertising ploys such as profiling users. "Two big issues holding back interactive TV is monthly fees and privacy," said Jim Plant, director of marketing for Replay Networks. "We are going to steer clear of profiling viewers. However, if a user subscribes to, say, a Science Fiction zone, advertisers will still be able to target advertising.

Replay Networks began taking orders for the box from customers and has already sent out devices to users that represent a broad test group. Retail units will be shipped in the first quarter of 1999 at a whopping price of $995 (£606). That price will come down to around to $500 (£305) by mid-year, predicted Plant.

Also announced on Thursday, the company will partner with MCI WorldCom and Tribune Media Services to provide local point-of-presence and programming information, respectively.

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