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TV Listings Are Getting Makeover

2008.01.20

Hundreds of television channels, thousands of hours of video-on-demand and a limitless flood of Web video are taxing the on-screen program guide.

The interactive TV listings haven't changed enough to sort through the explosion of programming options. But that is about to change.

TV listings are getting a makeover. Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., Tivo Inc. and other companies are plowing research into simplifying and customizing the on-screen program guides that are a regular part of menu options on television.

"As the content choices just get broader and broader, being able to navigate through that is going to be an important asset," said Jim Denney, vice president of marketing for Tivo.

New guides help consumers find what's available not just on TV, but also on the Web, from cable's on-demand options, and on other platforms. They also offer program recommendations, and cast bios, video and other deep information to help people explore unfamiliar shows.

The flurry of change underscores the importance of the seemingly lowly program guide. Cable operators and others are tweaking their guides to attract more customers and keep them happy. The firms also hope to add more revenue by incorporating clickable ads, like those on the Web.

Traditional TV listings show channel lineups and titles of programs sorted by air time. But Apple Inc.'s iTunes and other technology companies have made easy-to-use organizers for media content an expected feature for consumer products.

Gemstar-TV Guide, the market leader in TV listings, last year introduced what it calls My TV Guide, a personalized, image-rich program guide that took two years and $20 million to develop.

My TV Guide, on display last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, lets viewers see a list of their favorite channels, when their favorite shows are on next, and recommendations for other programs they may like, all in a single home screen. Choices from TV, on-demand movies, and the digital-video recorder are part of the feed. Listings also are personalized, so family members can each set content they want.

The next-generation guide, which Gemstar expects will start reaching consumers this year, also makes simple changes, such as replacing text-heavy program guides with pictures. The next airing of "CSI" would be indicated by an image, like a movie poster.

Research conducted for Gemstar and Comcast Corp. found two-third of respondents don't know what they want to watch when they sit down in front of the television, and 74% use the on-screen program guide as a starting point.

"This is some of the most-used software in the world," said Steve Shannon, executive vice president of product development at Gemstar.

News Corp., which owns Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has a 41% stake in Gemstar. Macrovision Corp. last month announced plans to buy Gemstar.

Several of the next-generation program guides have features to help viewers find more programs they may like. Fans of "Grey's Anatomy," for example, can start from the on-screen show description from Tivo's universal Swivel Search, and find other programs with common elements. Series star Sandra Oh was also in the movie "Sideways," which is available for download on Amazon.com's movie download service. The person can click to buy the movie or set the DVR to record the next airing on TV.

If these features feel familiar, it's not by accident. "It's very IMDB-like," Mr. Denney said, referring to the Internet Movie Database. The popular Web site, owned by Amazon.com, shows TV and movie titles along with their cast and crews, all linked together.

Finding TV shows isn't just about keeping people happy. Pay-TV companies pay monthly fees to license on-screen listings from TV Guide and other providers.

And with Internet connections a feature of many consumer devices, companies that make program guides now have a new customer base: consumer electronics companies, which are working to skip the set-top box that is the base for most program guides today.

Gemstar has deals in place with Sony, Phillips and other major companies, which pay a one-time fee to incorporate the interactive program guide in their televisions.

In the future, however, Gemstar and others believe the biggest revenue stream from on-screen program guides is advertising.

"Given it's the only way in knowing what's on TV, you're going to need advertising to support it," said Mitch Oscar, executive vice president of media agency Carat. "It's a fabulous area that has to be mined."

My TV Guide and other new listings are experimenting with interactive ads. People flipping through TV offerings could see a display for "CSI." Selecting the ad with the remote leads to a microsite about the program, including cast information, video of past episodes, and the ability to start recording the series.

In short, it's the same type of ad that people encounter online, but brought into the comfort of the living room when people are primed to make decisions on what to watch.

Mr. Oscar, who devotes his time to interactive TV advertising, said the placement, style and type of products to be advertised are still in the experimental phase. "Do you want to see movies and TV shows, or do you really want a detergent there?" he said.

The next generation of program guides is extending out of the TV set to other devices. My TV Guide allows for personalized features set on the living room television, and those preferences will be synchronized to a similar program guide on the Web or a mobile device.

The reverse is also true, for people who prefer using their computer or phone to set up their TV favorites. Mr. Shannon, the Gemstar executive, said in Japan consumers use the TV Guide feature on mobile phones as a remote control, to surf through TV listings and record shows even while sitting in front of the television.

Still, roadblocks remain to overhaul program guides. Millions of older pay-TV set-top boxes can't handle interactive features. Some of these will continue to sit in living rooms for years. Gemstar says it will see which elements of its next-generation guide can be incorporated into legacy set-top boxes.

It also remains to be seen how many features will show up on living room televisions. Cable operators and other pay-TV clients can add only the features they want from TV Guide listings, and Gemstar executives say pay-TV companies thus far have been reluctant to pay higher fees for the beefed-up program guides.

Makers of the on-screen listings say enough consumers want the new technology to ensure it will become standard.

http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB120045429906193681.html

 

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