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Tuned In: With On Demand cable, you set the schedule

Thursday, November 13, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The future is now -- and you get to play TV programmer. Earlier this year, Adelphia launched its own video-on-demand service and now Comcast, the area's largest cable provider, has done the same. It's a technological breakthrough that could easily change the way we watch TV.

That's a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because it gives viewers more convenience. If you miss an episode of "The Sopranos" and don't want to wait for the repeat, use Comcast's On Demand service to view it at a time that's convenient for you. Basically, On Demand gives you the option of playing programmer, watching what you want when you want it. It's sort of like TiVo, but instead of you storing programs in a digital recorder in your home, all the programs are stored by Comcast.

So far, On Demand is free to Comcast's digital cable customers, and Comcast spokesman Brian Jeter said it will remain an enhancement included in the cost of the digital tier.

The On Demand menu breaks down viewing options into many genres, including premium channels (HBO, Showtime, Starz) that subscribers to those services can use. There are also programs available from cable favorites (A&E, History Channel, Comedy Central, E!, etc.), lifestyle channels (HGTV, Food, Style), kids (Cartoon Network, PBS Kids), sports (Golf, Outdoor Life, Speed), news (CNN, Bloomberg Financial) and more.

Pay-per-view movies can also be watched through On Demand for $3.99 a pop.

On Demand is an intriguing technological development. I test-drove it Monday, watching an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" about visiting the doctor (one of three episodes to choose from) and requesting the feature film "The Others" from one of my premium channels. Another convenient feature: While watching a program, you can use your remote control to pause, fast-forward or rewind. You can stop, too, although I've yet to get mine to restart once I hit the "stop" button. (Comcast's Jeter said new software, once installed, will make clear that hitting "stop" takes you out of that program and doesn't allow you to restart.)

Jeter said programming will be updated weekly. For some shows that's OK, but for a dramatic series, it's not often enough. The biggest boon of On Demand is the convenience factor. If I miss "Carnivale" on Sunday night and don't want to wait for HBO to replay it, I should be able to go to On Demand soon after its premiere and call it up. Sunday's episode didn't show up until after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

It's not just Comcast that's getting into downloadable media. It's possible to download classic TV shows online at ($12 per month to subscribe), movies at (some free, some available only when you subscribe at $5.95 per month) and soap operas at ($9.99 monthly or $1.99 per episode).

A story in the trade publication TV Week says Fox is considering making some of its programs available to cable systems via video-on-demand.

What could possibly be bad about this technology? The TV universe is already hopelessly fractured with so many channels that few TV shows can bind viewers together culturally as programs did in the era of the Big Three networks. Now, if people don't have to abide by network schedules and can watch some programs at any time, that threatens to throw the TV universe even more out of whack.

Video on demand isn't yet pervasive enough to have that great an impact, but someday it probably will be.

Comcast moves Sci Fi

After announcing it would move Sci Fi Channel from expanded basic to digital and then changing its mind and leaving it on expanded basic, Comcast has reversed itself again and decided to move Sci Fi to Channel 160, part of the digital tier.

Upgrading from expanded basic to digital will cost consumers an additional $9.95 per month. The move takes effect Dec. 3, just five days before Sci Fi premieres its new miniseries based on the cult classic "Battlestar Galactica."

Comcast's Brian Jeter said the move was made to accommodate other channels that are moving down from digital to expanded basic and to allow the company to launch On Demand.

"The feedback we've gotten from our customers is that most of the [science fiction] programming is already on digital," Jeter said, citing programs on premium channel Showtime.

Jeter said the decision was made at the local level. Direct your comments to Comcast, 300 Corliss St., Pittsburgh 15220.

'Talk Back' gone

PCNC's "Talk Back" program, which aired weeknights at 6:30 p.m. and allowed viewers to call in and comment on the news of the day, continues on its hiatus. PCNC station manager Mark Barash said, "something other than news, a talk genre kind of program" is likely to take its place in a few weeks. An exact format has yet to be determined.

Flying less?

To save money, WPXI is flying its helicopter a little less these days. News director Pat Maday said the station's contract for the helicopter stipulates a certain number of flight hours per year. He's curtailing flights to try to stay within those hours.

"We're just keeping an eye on how often we're flying," Maday said. "It's really all dependent on the news. The news comes first."

That explains why Friday night's "Skylights" segment on high school football has been more like "Groundlights." There were no aerial shots last Friday.

"If it comes down to a story or football, you have to make a choice, and a story is going to come first," Maday said. "Even if we don't get it up again [this year], we're only talking two to three more weeks because we're almost done. We'll fly [over the games] next year."

Carney remembered

TV legend Art Carney, who died Sunday at age 85, will be remembered by TV Land with a 39-episode marathon of "The Honeymooners," in which he starred as Ed Norton, beginning at 8 p.m. tomorrow.

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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