Comcast-TiVo finally off pause

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More than 21/2 years after forming a partnership, Comcast began offering the TiVo service to a small portion of its customers, the companies said Thursday.

The product is a significant step in the evolution of the DVR given that Comcast is able to turn many of its existing boxes into TiVo units simply by way of a software upgrade that negates the need for new hardware or even the assistance of a technician.

The initiative, though, has been plagued with setbacks, with the companies first saying it would be available by late last year. Then, executives said a gradual rollout eventually would make the service available to most Comcast subscribers by year's end. But on Thursday, the companies suggested that only one region, New England, might have access to the service by year's end, with the rest of the country presumably coming later.

The companies also refused to discuss details of the service, including price, and the muted way it launched the product had analysts speculating that the rollout wasn't much more than a glorified beta testing.

"They obviously had issues with the technology," said Phillip Swann of TV Predictions, though he added that Comcast often takes the slow approach to new offerings.

"They like to do it out of the spotlight until it's perfected," he said. "There's a method to their madness, but to outsiders it just looks like madness."

Comcast has spent millions of dollars in helping TiVo develop the technology that will first work with Motorola set-top boxes and later with those made by Scientific Atlanta.

Analysts have long viewed the innovative relationship as a boon for TiVo, which has struggled to line up cable TV distributors, as well as a coup for Comcast, which can benefit from TiVo's massive brand recognition and rabid fans.

Financial terms of the deal never have been revealed, but analysts suspect that TiVo will earn about 75 cents per subscriber under a most-favored relationship arrangement.

TiVo earns more than $1 per subscriber, according to analysts, for each of the 2.5 million DirecTV-TiVo subscribers it claims, though DirecTV no longer sells the TiVo service. TiVo has 1.7 million stand-alone subscribers.

"We are pleased to confirm that the first non-Comcast employees have the new TiVo service and that the rollout in the New England region will continue throughout the next few months," the companies said.

TiVo has a similar relationship with Cox Communications, which has been expected to roll out its TiVo service about six months after Comcast.

When TiVo first struck its deal with Comcast in March 2005, its stock soared 75% in a day, closing at $6.70. On Thursday, TiVo shares rose 3 cents to $7.

Separately on Thursday, TiVo said it made Thomas Wolzien the ninth member of its board of directors.
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