Comcast Prepping New IPG

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The TV screens of millions of digital-cable subscribers nationwide might soon resemble the menu pages hotels have used for years to promote video-on-demand movies and other content.

Comcast Corp. plans to roll out a new interactive program guide this summer, and the MSO said its digital-cable customers will be force-tuned to the start page of the guide every time they turn on their set-top.

The guide will contain a large video window that will promote VOD content and four smaller thumbnails that will contain live video from linear channels.

Two cable programmers familiar with the guide said they believe Comcast is building valuable real estate with the start page and force-tuning strategy, and the MSO may eventually ask them to pay fees in exchange for having one of their networks be the first channel its 8.6 million digital customers see every time they turn on the TV set.

But Comcast executive vice president of new business development Steve Silva said Friday that the MSO currently has no plans sell placement on its guide to programmers.

“The whole idea for us was to make the best navigation possible to find the best products and services,” Silva said. “It’s designed to highlight the best in what’s available. It’s not our intention at all to monetize that front page by selling a block or anything like that.”

Comcast will fill the four video thumbnails with content based on the daypart or on current events, officials said.

For example, soap operas could be the focus during the day; news programming would get the spotlight at night; and sports programming would rule the weekends, they added.

Comcast plans to deploy the guide on two systems this summer, followed by a six-month rollout to systems nationwide that use digital set-tops from Motorola Inc.

The guide emerged from GuideWorks, the joint venture of Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc., and it will be distributed by the Comcast Media Center in Denver.

GuideWorks president Gerard Kunkel said the final version of the guide will also contain three genre mosaic pages focused on news, sports and kids’ programming, in which several networks from each genre will share the same page. DirecTV Inc. launched three similar channels in January -- Newsmix, Sportsmix and Kidsmix.

Gemstar-TV Guide -- which has rights to distribute the new version of its “i-Guide” to other MSOs -- is still exploring whether or not it will offer the version Comcast is using, said Todd Walker, general manager of advanced TV at TV Guide Television Group.

But Walker added that if the company moves forward with the guide -- and its cable affiliates decide to sell space there to programmers -- the vendor would want a cut of the revenue.

“We have to make money. And we’re not going to offer the service if we’re not making money, so right now, the jury is out on what the business model is,” Walker said.

He added that he envisions the new guide as a way to promote the best content on television at any given time.

“If we move forward with the service, we want it to be an editorial service that users have faith and confidence in, and we’re going to be picking the best programs on television, not because it’s a Fox program or not because it’s someone that paid us money,” Walker said.

The idea of force-tuning subscribers to a channel isn’t a new one for the industry. Some Comcast systems that distribute regional channel CN8: The Comcast Network force-tune customers to CN8 when they turn on their digital set-tops, and Charter Communications Inc. systems that use OpenTV Corp.’s Wink software automatically send customers to channel 1, a main start page, when they turn on their boxes.

Other IPG vendors are also developing mosaic guides. Pioneer Electronics Corp. and Paul Allen’s Digeo Inc. both demonstrated mosaic guides at the National Show this past week, and Microsoft Corp. director of marketing Ed Graczyk said that company has mosaic guides “in the product road map.”

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