Time Warner Cable patents method for disabling fast-forward function on DVRs

Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) has won a U.S. patent for a method for disabling fast-forward and other trick mode functions on digital video recorders.

The patent, which lists Time Warner Cable principal architect Charles Hasek as the inventor, details how the nation's second largest cable MSO may be able prevent viewers from skipping TV commercials contained in programs stored on physical DVRs it deploys in subscriber homes, network-based DVRs and even recording devices subscribers purchase at retail outlets.

"The ability to prevent trick mode functionality may be important for a number of reasons. Advertisers may not be willing to pay as much to place advertisements if they know that users may fast forward through the advertisement and thus not receive the desired sales message. Content providers may not be willing to grant rights in their content, or may want to charge more, if trick modes are permitted," Time Warner Cable writes in the patent, which was issued by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on May 15.

The technology contained in the patent performs the opposite function of the Hopper multiroom DVR that Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH) recently launched. Rather than prevent subscribers from skipping ads, Dish developed a technique for automatically removing all commercials contained in primetime programming from the Big Four broadcast networks.

While Time Warner Cable has developed technology that could prevent subscribers from skipping ads in programs stored on a DVR, it's unlikely that it will disable trick modes any time soon. Disabling the fast-forward function on a DVR would likely spark a backlash from subscribers, and make it more difficult for Time Warner Cable to compete with DirecTV (Nasdaq: DTV), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and other multichannel providers that distribute DVRs that allow subscribers to skip commercials.

But Time Warner Cable has already begun to disable the fast-forward function in some of the digital cable products that it offers to subscribers, including its "Look Back" and "Start Over" features. The patent refers to Look Back, a service that allows Time Warner's digital cable subscribers that forget to record a program on a DVR to access the program within three days of its premiere date. The Look Back feature is available in programming from networks owned by Discovery Communications, A&E Networks, NBC Universal, Showtime and Food Network.

Time Warner Cable originally filed the application for the patent, titled "prevention of trick modes during digital video recorder (DVR) and network digital video recorder (NDVR) content," in February 2007. While Time Warner Cable hasn't yet launched a network-based DVR similar to the "DVR Plus" product that is marketed by Cablevision (NYSE: CVC), its Look Back feature performs many of the same functions as a network DVR.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Justin Venech said the MSO hasn't announced plans to launch a network DVR. The company hasn't yet responded to questions regarding the patent that it was issued last month.

Time Warner Cable notes in the patent that it may be difficult for cable operators to prevent commercial skipping on DVRs that aren't controlled by the operator, but the MSO offers a technique for preventing viewers from skipping commercials in cable programing they record on other devices.

"By utilizing, for example, digital embedded cue-tones for advertisement insertion, a device in the network …  could use these points (i.e., the cue-tones) to selectively remove I-Frames/IDR-Frames to prevent trick modes during ads (or other portions) but not from the program being watched. Thus, consumers can be substantially prevented from skipping, fast forwarding and rewinding through video that the provider would like the consumer to view, such as advertisements, specific carriage agreement requirements, etc.," Time Warner Cable wrote in the patent. 

The penchant viewers with DVRs have for skipping ads has prompted other multichannel providers to look at ways to preserve advertising placed in TV programs. Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) recently submitted a patent application that details how it could deliver alternative commercials to subscribers that hit the fast-forward button on their remotes to skip ads.

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