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Next-Generation IPGs on Horizon

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

With TV Guide introducing its upgraded interactive program guide and Microsoft aiming to make its competitive mark with the first rollout of its much-touted Microsoft TV Foundation Edition, cable consumers should see a wide array of next-generation IPGs on their TV screens later this year.

With the advent of video-on-demand and digital video recorders, the IPG is evolving into playing a more crucial role, not only as the means to navigate the plethora of linear channels but now also as the portal into a legion of new on-demand content and as a means to promote new services such as VOD and high-definition TV. According to a recent report from In-Stat/MDR, which researches advanced communications equipment and services, the IPG worldwide market will reach nearly $1 billion by 2008.

The IPG changes are also necessary because many of today’s digital guides are clunky, cluttered and hard to navigate. Guide makers promise the next generation of offerings will make for smoother couch-potato travels.

TV Guide commands the lion’s share of Motorola’s digital homes for its guide, with a presence in more than 13 million digital homes. Its well-known tan guide, which some critics say is cumbersome to use, is being replaced by the new i-Guide starting this month.

“We have tried to make i-Guide easier to navigate by allowing you to get to the menu system from anywhere that you are,” said Todd Walker, general manager of advanced television at TV Guide Television Group. That includes the ability to move around the guide without returning to the listings grid, to exit the guide from any point and to call up a quick menu programmed with the user’s favorites. The quick menu should be particularly handy for VOD users, as they no longer have to drill down through several pages and then click back through them all to get to the main page of the guide. Nearly half of all homes with VOD access use TV Guide’s IPG, Mr. Walker said.

Other changes include more space for titles of shows and the ability to see 90 minutes of programming at a time rather than 30 minutes. The guide can store up to 14 days of programming. The i-Guide includes the ability to jump from a linear channel to its VOD counterpart, a feature that VOD programmers are keen to see.

Enhanced VOD Promotion

The new guide will also include more promotional opportunities for VOD content. Such on-screen guide promotions for programming can lift VOD use by as much as 50 percent, Mr. Walker said.

Most of the development of i-Guide was done before the joint venture that Comcast formed earlier this year with TV Guide. However, the two are now jointly funding IPG development.

But Comcast isn’t betting the farm on one horse. Earlier this year the MSO struck a deal with Microsoft to license 5 million copies of its Foundation product, a digital TV software platform that includes a next-generation IPG designed to make it easier to find DVR, VOD, HD and broadcast content. Comcast said that it may use the i-Guide in conjunction with Foundation in those 5 million homes.

Foundation will be deployed later this year in Comcast’s Seattle market. Foundation is easier to navigate than the TV Guide product and allows users to move around faster, said Ed Graczyk, director of marketing for the Microsoft TV division. Foundation also includes so-called “on-demand storefronts” that promote VOD content with artwork and graphics. Mr. Graczyk likened it to walking into a Blockbuster and seeing the posters for movies. However, Foundation does not include the ability to jump from linear channels to their on-demand counterparts.

Scientific-Atlanta’s SARA IPG is second to TV Guide in penetration and is found in 10 million to 11.5 million digital homes. S-A’s focus for the next iterations of its guide is on adding next-generation capabilities, such as the ability to navigate through content in conjunction with the multiroom DVR capability that the company plans to roll out later this year, said Bindu Crandall, director of marketing for subscriber networks at Scientific-Atlanta.

Another player in the IPG space is Pioneer, with its Passport IPG. Passport Echo is deployed on Scientific-Atlanta’s boxes in Time Warner, Blue Ridge and Susquehanna cable systems and on Motorola boxes with Cox. Dan Ward, VP of marketing and business development at Pioneer, said Passport is the first guide that can handle DVR dual tuner functionality on Motorola boxes. This means a customer can watch one show while recording another. Passport is deployed in more than 7 million U.S. homes.

Another newer entrant is the Moxi service from Digeo, up and running in some Charter and Adelphia systems.

Moxi has built its reputation on the “filters” its IPG includes to sort through different types of content, like all movies, sports or kids content, said Michael Markman, senior director of marketing for Digeo. The Moxi service was rolled out commercially in May.

Satellite operators aren’t under the same pressure to introduce next-generation guides, because they can’t offer VOD. However, DirecTV plans to introduce in the first quarter of next year new capability in its home-grown guide for “mosaic” channels, meaning a consumer could view all news channels, for instance, on a single screen. Later next year, DirecTV plans to launch additional interactive services and an updated IPG into new set-top boxes to access those applications, said DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci.