Can Comcast Save TiVo?

If you live in the Boston area, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Comcast DVR with TiVo service had just launched. While highway billboards and newspaper ads tout the “new” offering, in fact it’s been available here for more than a year — and the Comcast/TiVo partnership was launched some four years ago. So why the sudden large-scale promotional push? The cynic in me says it’s because Comcast and TiVo aren’t pulling in enough subscribers. But while they aren’t offering usage stats to back it up, the folks at TiVo say it just ain’t so.

“The marketing campaign has certainly increased during the fall and winter, and [this] shows that Comcast has an increased focus on the product,” David Sandford, TiVo’s V-P of marketing and product development, told us. “This is a very important initiative for TiVo, and we know that Comcast is committed to it as well.”

That may be the case, but the fact is that TiVo needs this deal more than Comcast does. TiVo has been steadily losing subscribers; it reported a 163,000 drop in the number of subscribers for the quarter ended Oct. 31, 2008, to 3.46 million. Some of them undoubtedly left because they switched to a rental DVR from their cable company.

TiVo hopes to win over people who are currently using the basic cable company DVRs by offering a superior product. And, let’s be honest, cable company DVRs are an inferior product: Trust me, I know. All too often, they have an interface that’s about as easy to understand as the taxes and fees section of your cable bill. That’s why I think the Comcast-TiVo DVR has great potential. It’s also why I was sad to read some of its early, less-than-positive reviews.

TiVo admits that building the DVR was a challenge, what Sandford called “an incredibly large, complex product development effort.” The challenge was in rebuilding the TiVo platform in a Java application that could run on the Motorola DVRs commonly used by cable, as well as making sure it could run on other hardware in the future.

Still, a far bigger challenge likely lies ahead: Winning over people who are happy with their cable company DVR. TiVo is hoping its name recognition will help convince such people to pay the extra $2.95 per month for the TiVo service. “People are familiar with TiVo. They know we’ve pioneered this space, and they know that we’re the best in the market,” Sandford said. “We’re offering features that you just don’t have in a basic DVR.”

Those additional features include the excellent TiVo interface, as well as Season Passes, Wish Lists, and TiVo recommendations. You also get the peanut-shaped TiVo remote — a definite plus. The DVR also offers an integrated search that returns results from your television programming and Comcast’s On Demand library. Unfortunately, though, you cannot record on-demand content. 

The Comcast boxes do lack some of the features found on TiVo-branded DVRs, though, such as active network connections. That meaas you’re left without the broadband features that TiVo has been adding to its DVRs through partnerships with Netflix, Amazon and CinemaNow, for example.

TiVo says it remains committed to making its own DVRs going forward, but acknowledges that its partnerships with service providers — which also include Cox Cable and DirecTV — are vital to its future. “Ultimately, what we want is subscribers, and the service provider side of our business will generate a larger number of subscribers over time,” explained Sandford. “But our retail business plays a big role, too, because we can innovate there. It enables us to create a more competitive product, and we can bring that to our partners. Our two businesses play different roles, but they have the same goal, and that goal is to gain subscribers.”

I’m hoping TiVo is successful in meeting that goal. This is one company I don’t want to see disappear.

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