Charting a Course for TV Navigation

Mar 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

At last week’s CTAM Digital & Broadband Conference conference, companies debated, plotted and prophesized what the future of television navigation will look and feel like.
Companies such as TV Guide Interactive, SeaChange, nCube, Gotuit and Navic Networks demonstrated cutting-edge program and menu guides designed to free viewers from a strictly linear experience without overwhelming them with a confusing array of options.
“It’s not a technology issue,” noted SeaChange’s Joel Ginsparg, VP and general manager, production and services, digital video arts. “It’s a creative issue. You can write a really lousy novel with [Microsoft] Word.”
Which means static grids are out, transparent overlays are in; harsh red boxes are out, soothing blue ovals are in. The idea is to create the most pleasant and seamless user interface across the multichannel universe, while still accommodating video-on-demand and DVR platforms.
This is even tougher than it sounds, considering most menu guides, DVRs and VOD servers currently do not “talk” to each other and therefore require the viewer to enter an entirely different guide platform-with its own set of rules-each time he or she wants to switch functions.
Trying to impose a degree of order on the development chaos, the CTAM On Demand Consortium released its “Best Practices Guideline,” a list of function and interface priorities for VOD guides designed by representatives of more than 40 industry companies.
In the report, features such as minimizing the number of clicks to get to a title were considered a high priority, while, say, allowing for sweepstakes and promotional activities was considered a low priority. “The consortium and current providers are moving down a path to get consistency,” said Bob Davis, managing director of Dove Consulting.
Still, given the rate of user churn to satellite, one program guide representative expressed annoyance with the consortium.
“In these meetings you’ll have people pontificating about whether a button should be blue or green,” she said. “And in the background you have operators grinding their teeth and screaming to just make it work and get it out there. So do you really want to wait for national standards or do you just want to go for it?”
Most are going for it. Take SeaChange’s VODlink, for example, which is going live on Cox, Comcast and Adelphia systems next month.
One VODlink feature will allow theatrical DVDs to be accessed from the on-demand server in their entirety-including chapter listings and bonus content. Another is a movie search function that lists results as actual theatrical posters instead of mere titles.
The most relevant application to multiple system operators and networks is, however, VODlink’s branded VOD overlays.
With the touch of button on any given cable network, a transparent drop-down menu of the network’s VOD content becomes available. Most program guide developers are planning similar displays, attempting a more Weblike and ingrained style of presenting options that reduces the need for viewers to hunt for content.
“We’ve done surveys that show viewers don’t want something that looks entirely unlike television,” said Mr. Ginsparg. “So the whole user interface is going `rich,’ with interactive text overlays rather than static pages to create a more seamless experience.”
SeaChange competitor Gotuit Media offered some intriguing functions. Gotuit, which is currently in a trial with Time Warner, specializes in “providing direct access to information-rich programs.”
This means shows such as sporting events, news and cable how-to programs get sliced and diced in a new way. Select a hockey game, for example, and you’re given the choice of viewing the game in full or just seeing highlights, goals, penalties, etc. Go to a news show and you can select the top news, weather or sports segment.
“For all of the recent history video has been consumed in a linear fashion; this gives you the opportunity to find exactly what you want within the content,” said Gabriel Berger, Gotuit’s VP of business development.
Also, he noted, “These are exactly the type of programs that have no syndication market, so we’re creating a whole new window of revenue.”
In general, future navigation systems will be presented in increasingly high resolutions to take advantage of high-definition formats as well as to increase clarity of text from a distance. Search programs will combine all the video options-DVR, VOD, live TV-under one easily accessed function, and viewers will be able to download menu guide “skins” from the Internet to customize their interfaces. One developer is even working on an interface that simplifies the remote control down to a mere two buttons.
“I think it’s going to be tremendously exciting, with television being your main video media portal,” said John Kelleher, Tribune Media Service’s general manager, electronic program guide division. “I think we will be passing around video like passing around iTunes. It will be hugely different than today.”