Monday, 5 February 2007

TiVo for Sky Anytime?

I have a love-hate relationship with Sky Digital, the digital satellite service part-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation! Their customer service has, for the most part, been excellent. However, I've bemoaned the absence of functionality enjoyed by our TiVo-owning cousins across the pond! And have pondered why Sky hasn't either licensed TiVo Suggestions or introduced a similar product feature?

Belatedly, due to increasing competition within the digital broadcasting market, Sky is on the eve of launching Anytime TV, comparable to TiVo Suggestions, and landing a knockout punch in the direction of its video on-demand rival Virgin Media (the new name for NTL and Telewest)!

The question that has been asked for the last year or so by many Sky+ and Sky HD users is, "when will the reserved space on my hard disk be used?" The answer is sometime in March, when users of Sky’s PVR3 and Sky HD boxes will get access to Sky Anytime TV. This will be about 1 million of the 2.1 million Sky+ subscribers.

Once the new software is released there will be a new layout to the EPG. As some users have already seen, the "HD Channels" group will move to option 2 on the EPG and the red button will become "Anytime TV".

On pushing the red button the user will be presented with a list of programmes that have been downloaded via the satellite overnight – there will be about 5 hours of programming a night downloaded for a total of 35 hours total on the box (HD users might have a slightly different set of numbers depending on the quantity of HD material). Content on the service will include Sky Movies (from the movie channels not, at launch, from the Box Office service), programmes from Sky One, Artsworld, Disney, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, The History Channel (and its siblings Biography, Crime and Investigation) and National Geographic (and its siblings).

The programmes that are downloaded will be a "best of" – they have employed an editor to choose what the programmes will be, and the content will be “editorialised” – so the information about the show will be more than in the current "info" offering.

For example, they might download the first episodes of a new show on Sky One so that if you miss it (or forget to record it) you can catch up with it at your leisure. In the case of hit series like 24 or Lost Sky can even download it to your box prior to transmission time and hide it until it is transmitted at which time it would become available.

Similarly the plan is to download the latest premiere movies and some other things you might not have otherwise watched. Part of the remit of the editor is to try to surprise and find interesting programming across the channels that are part of the service to attract new viewers to those programmes and linear channels. For channels lower down the EPG it provides an interesting advertising window for their programming.

At launch, there will be no adverts within the downloaded programmes.

Once on your disk, you will see a preview window in the top right hand side and a description on the top left hand side changing as you cursor down the programmes that are on the hard disk. The layout also has a date at which the programme will be deleted but just hit the record button and the programme will be saved to your planner to keep for the future. Beware: if you then delete it from the planner it will be gone from the Anytime TV list as well.

Overall this seems like it is a potentially excellent addition to Sky’s offerings. The overnight download will happen automatically and if you have recordings running yours will take preference. To deal with the issue of missed recordings Sky will be retransmitting programmes a number of times to ensure that when your box is inactive it will get all the programming.

So roll on March, if you don’t have a PVR3 or Sky HD box then come March there is a plan to send customers what Sky’s marketing people described as an attractive offer (I assume to upgrade).

The unused 80Gb of space had been a point of heated debate and some controversy, since the PVR3 was launched. But this seems to be a good offering that I really welcome. The only caveat is that Sky Anytime TV appears to be a one-way conversation: users can't indicate which shows they love or hate. The rumour mill suggests a further, and more substantial upgrade, will be released in Q4 2007.

On a related note. Sky Digi Online suggests that Sky+ will be free to all users from February 12th! I'll most certainly downgrade my package to Movies, Entertainment and Music mix!