Time Warner Patent Blocks DVR Ad-Skipping

Mari Silbey —  June 22, 2012

I’ve been dreading this day since I first got my ReplayTV in 2001. Time Warner Cable has earned a patent for a method of disabling trick-mode features on DVRs. The tech lets Time Warner block fast forwarding so recorded programming (i.e. commercials) can’t be skipped over.

Time Warner patent prevention of trick mode DVR features

Although the patent was filed back in 2007, the timing of its issue is interesting in light of the new Dish commercial-skipping feature in the Hopper DVR. The broadcast networks have gone lawsuit-happy over the Hopper, and Time Warner’s patent shows them that the cable company wants to back them up. Of course, the desire to block commercial-skipping features, and actual deployment of the technology are two different things. As Steve Donahue points out at Fierce Cable, the likely backlash against such a move by Time Warner would likely have the MSO back-pedaling as fast as it did four years ago when it first tried to institute bandwidth caps. Unfortunately, as with bandwidth caps, even if Time Warner fails at first, that doesn’t mean it won’t try and try again.

Many (if not all) of the pay-TV providers have already disabled fast forwarding for select on-demand programs. That’s easier to do when content is hosted in the network, but as we already know, network-based DVR services are starting to gain traction. Even if Time Warner never deploys its new blocking technology on home-based DVRs, it seems likely that they, or one of the other providers, will starting instituting the practice with network-based DVR. At that point, will subscribers flee the scene? Or will our other options be equally unappealing?

11 responses to Time Warner Patent Blocks DVR Ad-Skipping

  1. It appears that the patent covers sending a “flag” to the DVR to tell it to disable FF and RWD. What’s new and novel about that? Hasn’t such a method been patented already? I don’t understand what’s “patent-able” about this. Am I missing something here?

  2. This is just one reason why the STB’s provided by your provider, and now TiVo and its brethren are going to be come next to useless. Why have a DVR if the only “advantage” is to be able to watch a show when you want. Now even if it is a recording we are forced to watch those horrendous commercials?
    What is next, restraints on your sofa and props for your eyelids to force you to watch the commercials?

    That is why my home built SageTv Home Theater system is far superior. A program marks the commercials as the program is recorded and I can then watch the program as it was intended to be watched, i.e. WITHOUT commercials if I so choose.

    DEATH TO COMMERCIALS!!! Well, except for the ones like the ETrade ads which are HIlarious!!

  3. One more reason why IPTV is superior to cable/sat. You never see lower-thirds bugs or advertisements on Amazon VOD or Netflix. I watch what I want, when I want, where I want.

  4. Richard- wouldn’t hulu fall into that category as well? It seems to me that IPTV would be easier, not harder, to force commercials on us. That being said, I really don’t know that much about IPTV, so I could be wrong.

  5. I think it would be illegal for them to send the code to a customer owned DVR like Tivo. This is the equivalent of controlling someone’s computer without permission.

  6. TiVo plays nice with the cable providers, hence their implementation of Macrovision and CableLabs restrictions. If the providers said to honor those flags, I bet TiVo would agree… Compare it to the CCI Byte that flags a show for “Copy Once” which TiVo then prohibits copying the recording to another TiVo unit or offloading it via TiVoToGo. Hopefully, this above won’t amount to much.

  7. If you read the patent, its not just the “flags” that signal the start of each ad (non trickable) and the resumption of the program again (trickable). Its the fact that before the program is transmitted over the coax, they are going to transcode it so that they remove the I/IDR frames. Since many DVRs produce trick files (fast forward or rewind) by pulling the I/IDR frames from the original and ignoring the other frames, and there will no longer be any I/IDR frames during the commercials, they will break the ability of said DVRs to trick during said commercials.

    Is that a patentable idea? I’d say yes, at least in our patent system.

    Would it work?

    Well, it has the disadvantage that it disables both fast-forward AND rewind, so you couldn’t back up and watch your commercial again. At least you couldn’t back up to anyplace other than the START of the commercial where they apparently plan to leave an I-frame (the whole restart thing they discuss).

    You can still “play the asset fast”, meaning pull it all of disk at say 4X, decode all the frames, play back a few of them and discard the rest. So if you have a closed box with enough control over the hardware, you can still make tricks. Really high speed tricks would be hard to do though since you may not have the bandwidth on say your hard drive to pull the asset off at 64X or 128X.

    You can still skip the ads in their entirety. If you encounter a long section with no I-frames, you just to the next I-frame. By default this might result in a long “pause” for 1/4 of the original time, with the last I-frame from the non-ad before the break showing on the screen, until enough time elapses that the ad has been skipped. Seems like this would be fine with most people. You’d lose some visual cues on when to press PLAY but it would likely work fine. And they could easily shorten the time when they recognize the lack of I-frames and just delete the ads entirely. It would certainly make finding ads much easier in fact.

    Also of course they have to transcode the asset to remove the intra-frames from the ads. Which might hurt the quality of video during the ads. A little. Its another generation of recoding I guess. But hey, such benefits…

    I would say that while TiVo might not act on TW’s deploying this, the hacker community certainly would. And it would make hacker ad removal products work REALLY REALLY well…

  8. “And it would make hacker ad removal products work REALLY REALLY well…”

    I did briefly think about that. It would be excellent ironic justice.

    But, of course, patents aren’t real-world products…

  9. @Dave – saying TiVo plays nice with cable is accurate, hence the MSO deals

    but saying that led to macrovision and honoring cbale labs is not accurate. For DVD TiVos, macrovison had to be honored.
    for cable cards, cable labs had to be honored. TiVo put out some fight on the copy flag as it was being misused and might have backed cable labs back to hardware certification if they had pressed the fight — but then the copy flag misuse stopped growing and it all quited down.

    For many the copy function was kind of moot anyhow, now tell folks they can not move around in the show as they choose and that will bring out the fight as that would derail a major benefit of a DVR. I could not watch reality shows if I had to watch every minute of them.

  10. We mostly agree – they did what they had to do to play ball in this realm. But implementing Macrovision on their non-DVD DVRs was voluntary… ;)

  11. Disabling blocking technologies in DVR is nothing compared to the evolving “added value” technologies of smart tvs tracking every move of the eye and every gesture.