In the living room of the near future, choosing something to watch on television will no longer be simply a matter of seeing what is on at 7 p.m.
With content from video-on-demand, digital video recorders and home hard drives — and, eventually, gaming and Internet options — TV electronic programming guides may be on the verge of evolving into a muscular "über guide," drawing on vast pools of live and stored content from many databases.
But there are those who believe this über guide will not spring from existing electronic programming guides. Instead, it will evolve in parallel to those menus, driven by Darwinian survival motivations.
The core problem is not unlike the one faced by early Internet pioneers: How does one bring some searchable order to the deluge of content in the digital-TV universe, while maintaining the operator's brand presence?
"You've got to look at it at the highest level as this core concept of providing a window into all of the different services that are available through your TV," said Microsoft Corp. TV platform group director Ed Graczyk. "And some of those will be the traditional services people think of today with EPG, which is how can I find what is on at a certain time.
"But I think you will see these EPGs evolving to more useful navigational tools that are not necessarily going to be just limited to what's coming out over the broadcast stream."
STILL THE BASICS
Getting there poses some obstacles, though, and one of the biggest lies within the boxes themselves.
The ability to generate more than a simple date and channel grid with simple search functions is limited by the processing firepower of most digital set-top boxes now deployed. A recent industry survey showed that almost 51 percent of all digital boxes in now cable homes are modest Motorola DCT 2000s.
"You could do actually a pretty cool EPG on a 2000 with a good user experience, but it won't have all of the bells and whistles," Graczyk said. "You will be able to do basic channel tuning and navigation to the channels — information, integration into things like parental controls and even some basic interactive advertising."
That's exactly what Gemstar-TV Guide did recently when it integrated its guide with Wink Communications Inc.'s interactive advertising applications on the DCT-2000. Given the box's limits in processing power and active memory, resource sharing required tight coordination.
"In order for us to add functionality, we have to do it without adding space on the set-top box," said Gemstar senior vice president and general manager of IPGs Todd Walker. "We have to do it within the same 314 K or 384 K that we live in today, so we need to take advantage of the interface that has already been built."
GUIDE OF THE FUTURE
While it is still cautious, Gemstar-TV Guide does have plans to use technology to beef up its guide. Its deals with its MSO customers include clauses that allow for interactive links to programs, so customers can eventually see a movie listing and go to that movie's promotional Web site, view the trailer, see interviews with the stars or drop into a chat room.
"That's really the approach we are taking today," said Walker. "We want to have a guide that can produce quality editorial and drive viewership of cable services, as well as one that has quality advertising and has solid functionality behind that."
At the National Show, Microsoft will show off a digital-music system that is tied to a standard cable EPG, providing subscribers with specific information on the music channels that cable offers.
"But wouldn't it be neat if you were able to integrate your digital music coming over the cable broadcast along with other music, whether that's stuff you have on the Internet, things you have ripped off CDs and stored locally?" Graczyk asked. "So there you have this EPG of sorts, where it integrates all of your different digital music into a single interface."
On the TV side, IPG sub-channels could evolve, similar to the topic-specific channels on Web portal sites.
"What's to say that it doesn't make sense for [MTV: Music Television] to have their own branded guide to all of the different MTV services that are available, especially in digital cable, where you've got multiple channels for these networks?" Graczyk asked.
Others, however, see a danger in creating multiple content guides for each programming resource, including International Data Corp. DTV market analyst Greg Ireland.
"Particularly once you start looking at things like PVR (personal video recording, also known as DVR), it becomes all the more important if one is using a program guide to flag programs for future recording … there is a need to have that really be the same guide that one is using," he said. "As the functionality is integrated into set-top boxes I just see as a critical piece of making the PVR-enabled cable box be palatable to the mass market."
Cox Communications Inc. has taken note of that in its early ITV products. The Atlanta-based MSO has developed a VOD guide and an interactive guide in parallel. In some markets, the VOD user interface is riding alongside the programming guide, said Cox vice president of video-product management Lynn Elander.
The VOD and interactive interfaces "are developing along a path so the consumers have a similar experience as they are drifting from one application to another, so they don't have to relearn behavior," Elander said. "I think that is where we want to be, eventually."
One day, that will be expanded to include DVR technology.
"Eventually, when we get PVR up and running, yes, that experience should be very similar," Elander said. "It should be possible for a customer who watching or looking on their EPG to see that L.A. Law: The Movie
is on Sunday night.
"It should be a simple application for that customer to then transition to PVR and tape it."
Another issue has to do with coordinating metadata from various content stores. Metadata is descriptive data about a given program, such as its title or a synopsis, supplied to the EPG for purposes of navigation.
With content coming from so many different sources, that will require some industry cooperation, noted Gemstar's Walker.
"If I could say anything to the industry that is important, it's that the industry is not overly protective of what each company has from a metadata perspective," he noted. "You don't want to have a description for a movie on Starz! showing up in the regular guide, and then showing up in the On Demand section having a different description for that same program."
That coordination includes providing customers with different viewing options for a given program, whether in the linear channel guide or an on-demand section.
"What we want to do is find a way to work with the industry to make sure we can show that content in a format that is easy for the consumer," Walker said. "If you do a search on movies and you choose comedies, we want to be able to present search results to the user that reflects things that are on their PVR, things that are available on VOD and things that are available on linear television."
But that presents yet another problem — the potential conflict over presenting multiple viewing options for the same program.
"We're struggling with it; we are struggling with it right now," Elander said. "There are differences of opinion about how deep in the user interface experience the EPG should go."
Ireland also sees the conflicting brand strategies of content owners, guide providers and cable operators as a potential issue. Disputes may arise when each players wants to maintain its name beside the content in the guides.
"All the other entries into different types of programming — whether that is time shifted à la PVR or VOD content — the desire is to really maintain that ownership of the viewer experience and offer the front end," Ireland said.
So what will IPGs look like in the next few years? They'll be lot more coordinated, said Gemstar's Walker.
"What you are going to see is VOD, PVR and network PVR all integrated tightly within coupled user interface," Walker said. "That is, whenever you do a search for a program, the results that come back from that search are going to be from one of those three types of delivery mechanisms."
But more than likely, the guide will stick closer to digital TV applications, rather than reaching out to gather in digital music and Internet content, according to Ireland.
"I think there are ways to integrate the PVR VOD and program guide experience and not have it be this whole catch-all for a networked entertainment infrastructure in the home," Ireland said. "So say that there can be the integration, but cable operators don't necessarily have to get themselves into the situation where they are now supporting using the TV Guide interface controlling your audio jukebox on your PC."