This post has been updated, as indicated below.
The revolutionary Fan TV set-top box and viewer guide will soon be available to Time Warner Cable customers across the country, marking the first formal roll-out of a product that delivers a combination of live TV, pay-TV services and online video on demand through a minimalist receiver.
Fan TV, which San Francisco-based start-up Fanhattan unveiled 11 months ago, is unusual in at least three respects. All the programming, including broadcast TV, is transmitted via Internet Protocol, à la an online video service such as Netflix. The viewer guide offers several different ways to find movies and TV shows, integrating "over the top" options from the Web with those from live TV. And the Zen-inflected set-top is not only far more attractive than the typical cable box, its touch-controlled remote is a breakthrough in ease of use.
The heart of Fan TV is the guide, whose combination of online offerings and live TV listings with reviews, social-media tools and other resources from the Web is unlike anything cable operators have offered to date. Mike Angus, general manager of video for Time Warner Cable, said his company has seen demos of many alternative approaches to TV, and "this is one that really resonated with us because of the unique way in which Fan TV presents the experience, both the Time Warner Cable content as well as that from third-party providers." Having those sources in a single, unified experience, with no need to switch apps or video sources, was "very refreshing," Angus said.
The popularity of some online video providers, such as Netflix, has seemingly come at the expense of pay-TV operators. Time Warner Cable, for example, shed more than 800,000 customers last year. But Angus said he sees online video services as complementary to cable's offerings, not cannibalistic. And by showing Time Warner Cable's content side by side with what's available online, he said, Fan TV should help persuade subscribers that they Are getting a good value.
One advantage the cable company's offerings may have over the third-party apps on the Fan TV platform is in picture quality. While the Web-based video services have to compete for bandwidth with other Internet traffic, the Time Warner channels and video-on-demand offerings won't, Angus said.
Pre-orders of the set-top begin Tuesday at the Fan TV site, priced at $99. There is no monthly service charge beyond what Time Warner Cable charges for its channel packages. Once the box begins shipping later this quarter, the price will go up to $149.
And now for the caveats. The biggest one is that, at least for now, Fan TV isn't presenting the full lineup of Time Warner Cable channels, nor does it include many of the most popular Web-based video services. The former limitation is a consequence of the large and regionally unique number of channels that have to be prepared for transmitting via Internet Protocol. Angus said Fan TV will have the same channel line-up as the company's other IP-based offerings (such as its iPad app), and the line-up continues to expand.
[Updated, April 22, 11:40 a.m.: A Fan TV spokeswoman clarified that while the company will offer "just about all broadcast and cable channels and packages" to Time Warner Cable's customers in Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Kansas City and Austin, subscribers in other cities will have access only to cable networks and premium services, not the local broadcast channels.]
As for the shortage of popular "over the top" apps -- there's no Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu or CinemaNow, just Redbox Instant by Verizon, Crackle and (soon) Target's new Ticket video site, along with the Rhapsody music subscription service -- Fanhattan Chief Executive Gilles BianRosa blamed "a variety of reasons," but said Time Warner Cable has placed no limits on the platform.
"You can expect to see a lot more coming on board," BianRosa said in an interview. "Those are just our launch partners. When we launched the iPad app, we only launched with four apps, and now we have 36. We are not restricted by any means."
Even if Fan TV had the full Time Warner channel line-up, it still falls short of a complete substitute for a cable set-top box because it has no built-in DVR. The company offers a cloud-based DVR service, but Time Warner Cable isn't deploying it at this point. Explained Angus, "We have not as a company embraced cloud DVR," at least not yet.
(Cox did a trial run with Fan TV in Orange County last year that included the cloud DVR service, but that experiment ended after a few months. There's been no indication since then whether Cox will give Fan TV a more formal rollout.)
It's not all bad news on that front, though. The Fan TV set-top, which is akin to single-purpose computer, has enough storage to let viewers pause live TV for up to 20 minutes, as well as doing instant replays and other DVR-like functions, BianRosa said.