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Publication Date: 2004-Jun-07

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This service is intended to help video on demand (VoD) content providers to improve their ROI (Return On Investment) for their VoD services by encouraging customers to use VoD programming in exchange for redeemable points. Many households subscribe to digitally based audio/visual services that are delivered through a VoD based network. These services provide viewers with a big number of channels to choose from. From the viewer standpoint, the key element of this system is the set-top unit that is used to receive and decode digital audio-visual programs transmitted on the content provider network (satellite, cable, terrestrial, etc.). A set-top unit is said to be interactive if the box allows a subscriber to send back information to the service provider. This feature is essential for VoD services. The newer generation of set-top units embeds a hard-drive into the set top box that allows for enhanced services (such as video on demand). Near VoD, or Pay-Per-View (PPV), is the most simple enhanced service, where paying programs are broadcasted at specific hours (in the same way that movies are precisely scheduled in theatres). For this service, the viewer requests a desire to watch a program by means of the interactive channel, where the PPV service provider records the purchase information for the invoice, and an authorization key is sent back from the content provider to the set-top unit to allow the decoding the broadcasted paying program. The drawback of this service is the constraint for the viewer needs to be present at the scheduled time of the PPV service to watch a requested program. True VoD (as an enhanced service) is not broadcasted; the bought program is specifically intended for one set-top unit. This service is more flexible as it allows a customer to choose any program in a catalog and to watch the selected program at any time. In this system, after the request to watch a program is sent to the VoD content provider by the means of an interactive channel, the purchase information is recorded for the invoice, and the VOD program is scheduled for presentation to the user set-top unit on a reserved channel. The content provider sends information allowing for the set-top unit to tune to the reserved channel and to decode the requested program. However, the download operation scheduling could result in a certain delay before the content provider finds a free channel to download the requested program to the viewer if this one has requested an immediate start of the replay; but compared to the PPV system, the viewer has a better control for the time when the viewer watches the program. A third class of enhanced services, called deferred VoD, are for set-top units equipped with a hard drive. This system is a mix of both preceding systems, where a viewer buys a broadcasted program as with the PPV service, but instead of being constrained to watch the program at the scheduled time, the program is stored on the set-top unit hard drive. Thus, the program can be watched at the most convenient time for the viewer after the start of download operation. When considering the cost of VoD service classes for a content provider, the second system (true VoD) is the most expensive to operate because a part of the network bandwidth is reserved and used for only one subscriber for a certain duration of time. The first method (PPV) is less expensive because many subscribers are likely to watch the same paying program broadcasted at a given time, therefore the bandwidth will be shared between these n customers. However, with the PPV system, one given channel is usually reserved for the same program that is continuously broadcasted on it. The third method (deferred VoD) is the least expensive because the content provider can use a given channel to broadcast several paying programs. The constraint for the customer is that the movie will not likely be available before a certain time. But once the program is stored on the set-top unit hard drive, the customer may watch it whenever he/she wishes. In order to encourage the purchase of VoD programs for which a content provider has a low cost and/or a higher profit margin, the provider can credit a viewer's account with points or other type of incentive to select the higher profit margin VoD system. An exemplary embodiment of this invention relies on the set-top unit interactive session that is activated when a subscriber buys a VoD program. Each time a user requests such a program, the content provider communicates with the subscriber information database server in order to register the request in the subscriber information history for billing purposes. A point history record is added to the subscriber information records, and the content provider just has to also communicate the number of points to add to the subscriber point history. The subscriber can check its point credit account at any time (either off-line if the last number of earned point is stored in the set-top unit after each interactive session, or simply by using the interactive channel). An example of the interaction procedure is shown below: It is the responsibility of the content provider to decide how many points to offer according to its objectives, but basically the goal is to offer more points for the services that are more profitable (based on the price normally charged to the customer and also according to the service cost for content provider). An example would be to give 5 points when a subscriber buys a true VoD program, 10 points for a PPV program, and 15 points for a deferred VoD program. A free movie could be offered when at least 100 points would have been accumulated. In the situation where the content provider proposes different quality services at different prices (such as standard quality or high-definition quality), the number of earned points will be different, and the number of point required to get a free movie would also be different according to the quality and the program price. For example, for customers equipped with high-end set-top units that allow the decoding of either standard definition or high definition programs, the number of points offered could be 5 points for the standard quality (as expressed above), and 10 points for the high quality. For this example, earned points could be redeemed for a standard quality program at 100 points, while a high definition program is offered for 200 points. When a subscriber requests a paying program, the content provider first has to check how many points has already been earned by the subscriber. If the subscriber has reached a sufficient number of points to get a free program, the user is presented the option to either pay with the next bill, or to use point account. The advantage of the proposed invention is to encourage the subscribers to use more often VoD services. Instead of just taking advantage of one coupon punctually, the subscriber has to buy a certain number of programs before having the possibility of taking advantage of a free movie. Moreover, when a content provider uses set-top unit embedded hard-drives to propose enhanced services that eventually also allow him to optimize the use of the broadcast network bandwidth, it can use the reward system to encourage subscribers to buy programs that are less costly for him. In the end, this award system should help the content provider to improve its revenues with this kind of paying services. Figure 1 discloses an exemplary system for a points based award system that rewards a user for selecting a video on demand service.