TV Guide Prepares For Next DTV Wave - Twice

TV Guide Prepares For Next DTV Wave

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Having accomplished most of its goals in 2003, Gemstar's TV Guide Consumer Electronics unit has stepped up its efforts in 2004 to have its subscription-free interactive program guide system implemented in all U.S. digital television sets and most digital recording devices, while expanding its share of international markets.

That was the pronouncement of Doug Macrae, president of the Bedford, Mass.-based TV Guide Consumer Electronics unit, during a recent media tour here.

In 2003 and early 2004, Macrae said TV Guide settled its outstanding patent litigation with all but one company — Scientific Atlanta — and made significant inroads in having the TV Guide On Screen IPG added to key digital television models. Now with a wave of CableCARD-enabled digital televisions slated to arrive in the second half of the year, the TV Guide IPG will appear in a wide variety of models.

"My goal in North America now is to get TV Guide in every single digital television and recorder," Macrae said. "We are well on the way there. Some of the partners are missing but not many. Some companies are still saying, 'Well, let us put you in the high range TVs,' and I say, 'No. It really has to go all of the way down.'"

On the international front, Macrae, who recently took over worldwide responsibility for the use of TV Guide's IPG in CE devices, said the system can be found in eight countries now, having recently shipped the first product in Europe.

Additionally, almost all major Japanese manufacturers are now carrying the system for their domestic market, and the Taiwan and China markets "are on the horizon." He acknowledged China will be a difficult market to crack.

Currently, the company has "partnership" deals for the United States on either licensing guide technology components or delivering the entire guide with 13 consumer electronics brands, including: JVC, LG Electronics/Zenith, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Panasonic, Philips, Pioneer, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Thomson, TiVo and Toshiba.

Macrae, who does not handle negotiations with cable and satellite TV providers, would not comment on activities to integrate TV Guide On Screen in multichannel TV services — including DirecTV, which is a new sister company in the News Corp. family.

As for implementing the guide in personal video recorders (PVRs), Macrae said: "We view that most of the major CE manufacturers are just taking hard disks, putting them in a box and using our software to create a PVR. So we have PVRs coming from almost everyone on our list of partners."

Similar success is now coming from manufacturers of DVD recorders (particularly PVR/DVD recorder combo products), who are adding the guide to expand the ease of use and functionality of disc recorders, and until recently have relied on Gemstar's more dated VCR-Plus programming system.

The latest iteration of the guide is designed to "focus on television." Gone are news services and other ancillary data offerings.

"We are really sticking to our knitting," said Thomas Ward, TV Guide marketing and product design VP. "Instead of data services, we are adding things like HDTV indicators and better functionality for digital recorders to make this the best guide possible."

The guide now carries the simple TV Guide logo and sharper graphics. The program listings have been tweaked to include more detailed information about digital television offerings. For example, HDTV indicators now appear in the grid guide next to the program names to indicate available high-definition offerings.

Additionally, high-definition content has been added as a program sort category among the service's extensive program navigation tools.

Another addition to the system is a program reminder feature, which displays an onscreen reminder that a program the viewer has specified is about to begin. Alternatively, the user can command the TV to autotune to the program, even if the TV is turned off. At the appropriate time, the TV will power on and tune to the specified program. This feature can be used to have the TV perform the function of an alarm clock.

To contend with the trend of some networks to begin certain shows just before or just after the hour or half-hour, TV Guide has designed the grid to offer a visual reference for the actual start and stop times of a program by adding "Time Accurate Titles." Additionally, users are given the ability to manually add or subtract minutes from program start and stop times to better capture TV shows (particularly sporting events) in their entirety when recording or autotuning.

Another addition to the guide is a visual program bar that indicates how much of a program has already aired.

To expand the use of digital recorders, the new TV Guide system can now list every program recorded and available on disc (hard disk or DVD). A group view menu shows everything available on disc, and a filter will show just the programs of the same title or genre.

"We purposefully kept things very simple," said Ward. "We provide enough functionality for users to customize the guide, but if they don't want to get into it to that degree, they don't have to."

TV Guide will help retailers sell the feature in products with a demo loop. Additionally, the company will be working with manufacturers in sales training efforts to help educate floor sales people.

As for data delivery, TV Guide continues to primarily use the Vertical Blanking Interval section of PBS broadcast stations to deliver its program guide data to users' TV screens. But Ward said the company "is building out a parallel digital network so that when the television system one day converts over to full digital broadcast, we will have that in place."

Macrae said TV Guide is "in the process of deploying [the digital network] in major metropolitan areas this summer."

Another goal for the company in 2004 is to build its revenue from advertising on the TV Guide menu grid.

Macrae said that aspect of the business "got off to kind of a slow start, but we have just hired Jack Harvey as our advertising strategy senior VP. We see advertising as a tremendous opportunity, but it is going to take time to build."

Macrae added that he believes advertising on the TV Guide menu grid is a possible way to contend with PVR viewers fast-forwarding past commercials.

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