Showtime launches iTV

By | September 12, 2001 | Feature

Dubai-based pay-TV platform Showtime will launch an interactive service later this month and a N-VOD PPV service a couple of months later. Showtime, which uses Irdeto conditional access, has also linked with Irdeto’s OpenTV middleware (version EN2) and applications outfit Agency.com to create the Middle East’s first portfolio of iTV products. Showtime’s president, Peter Einstein, in an exclusive interview with Interspace, described the upcoming launch as “the dawning of a new day”.

While there is still no confirmation of the Star Select switch from Orbit to ART/ADD, Showtime’s Peter Einstein simply shrugs his shoulders and says his platform remains focussed and committed to bringing the best of “western‚ entertainment to Middle East-based viewers.” Adding “interactive and PPV is right for our market, and we never thought we would be so far ahead of our competitors. We have worked on this for the past 18 months. We are ready and it’s here now,” he said. Einstein says they have reserved an additional NileSat 102 transponder for the PPV service which it plans pan to have on air in time for the all-important holy month of Ramadan (November/ December this year) starting with a pair of movie channels and quickly building to ten such channels.

Showtime’s local competition takes three forms, of which the first two are rival pay-TV services: Arab Radio & Television’s Arab Digital Distribution (ADD) division and Rome-based Orbit. The third competitor comprises the dozens of increasingly attractive free-to-air channels including MBC and LBC.

Showtime, backed by Viacom and Kuwait’s KIPCO investment company, is generally acknowledged to be market leader, although getting reliable subscription numbers in the market is a tough task. Einstein says the new iTV applications will add new subscribers, but its main goal is to keep existing subscribers and reduce churn while at the same time using the more sophisticated middleware for a new EPG (branded as SmartTV‚) which will present NileSat’s more than 100 channels with a seven day programme grid, as well as a new mosaic of Showtime’s key channels. Interestingly, Einstein says it will broadcast its mosaic in free-to-air mode, acting as a tempting barker channel for non-subscribers.

SmartTV went live for the first time of September 3 and means Showtime is the first broadcaster using MIH’s Irdeto/OpenTV new development, and ahead of Multichoice itself in Africa and Greece. “We’re the pioneers. We are at the forefront, and it has meant a lot of work, not least changing the bouquet’s structure so that it is set up to work with the EPG and sits nicely within the mosaic,” said Michael Smith, Showtime’s interactive consultant and who has been heading the project team for the past year or so. Einstein says that Showtime is very aware of the complications that can often follow on from such a major software upgrade to existing boxes, and says steps were taken to train CSRs and sales agents to be prepared for telephone calls. “Although the FAQ‚s built into the display will solve most callers questions,” added Einstein.

OpenTV’s version EN2 creates a pleasing blue grid for Showtime, with a ‘Remind’ function, series links, time-elapsed display and the ability to lock into a region specific time (important in an area with time zones that can be a few hours ahead of GMT, although the default will be Saudi Time‚ that everyone locally understands.

SmartTV will be backward-compatible and available to around 50 per cent of existing subscribers immediately, and certainly all those use Showtime’s approved boxes, and in particular the South African-built UEC Technologies‚ Galaxis‚ range of 642/660 and 700 series boxes plus the Eurostar range of STBs. One of the problems that Einstein recognises is the wide diversity of other receiving equipment in the market, not all of which will be suitable for these iTV signals. “Next,” says Einstein, “is a PVR and we are already sourcing prices and specifications for a hard-drive equipped, and Showtime approved, box for a market introduction next year.”

“We are really proud of this, and we will be launching first in Kuwait, this week. It is a major milestone for us, then Saudi Arabia then Dubai in the UAE,” he added. Galaxis will be building new boxes for those viewers using non-approved boxes, and Showtime has various incentive schemes in place to allow for a seamless upgrade. The new boxes will have 8 Mbytes of SDRAM, 4 Mbytes of flash memory and handle 100 MIPS processing speed. Volume shipments will begin to all major markets by the end of September.


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