My Turn

Time to Move Beyond Grid

4/09/2007 4:51 AM

Here’s hoping the guidance at next month’s Cable Show in Vegas indicates steady evolution beyond The Grid.

As in the grid-based listings that are still at the heart of most cable customers’ electronic program guides. They’re fine for managing, say, what’s on 100 channels or so. But there are now digitally video recorded shows also to choose among, and HD channels and thousands of hours of on-demand programming. And downloaded shows and YouTube shows and, well, you get the idea.

Right now there are too many clicks and screens and interfaces to sift through on screen, even without adding searching for shows on the Internet.

“At some point, industries really have to get off the dime and make things easier because things are getting a lot more complex and linear grids don’t make it anymore,” Gartner Group analyst Patti Reali commented on the situation. Comcast, she said, had made some nice improvements to its iGuide, and she likes the guide Verizon rolled out with FiOS TV and how it shows what’s been recorded and what’s on-demand, as well as what’s scheduled.

But TV electronic guides still have a ways to go, Reali said, adding, “Just from a personal usage standpoint, you have to go into three different interfaces for three different kinds of content. It’s not user-friendly.”

The cable companies have invested heavily in guide upgrades. Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide have a joint venture, GuideWorks, tasked with improving the current iGuide, and Time Warner Cable has begun rolling out a new guide that evolved from the Mystro headend-based-DVR project. But change has come slowly to cable guides, and early rollouts of Time Warner’s Digital Navigator have been problematic. There were enough complaints about it in Lincoln, Neb., that the City Council held a hearing to let consumers air grievances. Limited memory capacity in many digital set-tops is a challenge, as well.

But outside forces are at work. Last week, The New York Times published a rave review of TiVo’s set-tops’ ability to grab home movies from the PC and record Web videos from CNET and other Internet sites, for TV display. Apple TV and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 also are showing consumers new ways to find and display content from places far off The Grid.

Cable’s advantage against those options right now is cost – there’s little extra charge for a cable DVR and guide – but Web-savvy consumers, used to instantaneous search and navigation, want more from their user experience.

Gemstar promises to show and tell about next-generation guides at the cable industry’s Las Vegas gathering next month, but Tom Carson, president of the company’s North American interactive-program-guides business, isn’t saying much about it yet. But he called it “a whole different paradigm from what we’re used to.”

Moving beyond The Grid? “Trying to, yes,” Carson said. “That’s the concept.”

Next-generation guides must make it easier to navigate along different content highways. “Simplicity is part of the exercise,” he said. Future TV guides also should make viewing recommendations based on your habits, he added. And the guide should make it easy to tap into content across platforms, and make it easier to schedule recordings from outside the home. (Those are all things TiVo offers, of course.)

Carson said Gemstar’s consumer research is guiding development efforts, and cable customers agree with the direction, he said. Timing is always an issue. “Everybody wants it sooner than later,” he added.

Outside vendors are hoping to help out. Hillcrest Labs, of Rockville, Md., uses graphically presented “visual directories” to sort through content rather than pages of text and has a “pointer” type remote that provides a certain wow factor. Or as executive VP or marketing Andy Addis points out, there’s a “Wii” factor, as in the Nintendo Wii motion-sensing remote system that’s a big hit with consumers now.

Hillcrest will have a presence at the Cable Show, Addis, a former Comcast executive, said. “We’re getting traction” with cable, adding that Hillcrest can provide some enhancements to existing guides.

“I think there is increasingly a recognition on cable’s part that the guide is central to the customer experience and it needs to evolve beyond the grid,” he said. “I think the grid is going to look pretty darn old two years from now.”

Here’s hoping for some big upgrades sooner than that.

September