The launch of a whole host of new digital television services in 1998 will bring a bewildering number of channels and related services, wanted or otherwise, to the living room. Viewers will have access to hundreds of ‘channels’ as well as related information, interactive services and the internet, all of which will be accessible through their television and a set-top box. The challenge to broadcasters and advertisers will be to deliver a service that allows the viewer to navigate around this huge volume of information and hold their attention as long as possible. The industry’s answer to these new challenges is the Electronic Program Guide. US operators such as Direct TV, Prevue and Gemstar have offered simple electronic program guides for several years. Until recently, these have been relatively crude versions of weekly listings magazines with programs laid out in grid format, channel by channel with no input from the viewer. According to Jon Haass, director of marketing at OpenTV, the EPG designer that has already inked deals with British Interactive Broadcasting and Japanese satellite outfit Perfect TV amongst others second generation EPGs will give the viewer more choice and also provide greater opportunities.
Rather than the EPG being burned on to the ROM of the set-top box, it will be downloaded via a modem or cable link and stored in the device’s flash memory, allowing users to alter the way the application runs and update the software more easily. The next generation of EPGs will provide an integrated menuing system, enabling viewers to set up their video and other devices through a remote control and the on-screen guide. Users will also be able to personalize their EPG by programming it with their interests so it will make suggestions as to what to watch, based on the viewer’s profile. The software will also open up new opportunities to advertisers, allowing them to target audiences much more selectively. The EPG will help influence and guide the consumer to a particular choice says OpenTV’s Haass and as such will be a powerful marketing tool, enabling both broadcasters and advertisers to tout their wares. Amongst others, OpenTV has sold its EPG to satellite operator BIB, a joint venture between News Corp’s BSkyB, Matsushita, Midland Bank and British Telecom. It plans to launch a service in the second quarter of next year, offering viewers a range of consumer services such as on-line banking, e-mail and home shopping. Already French broadcaster Canal Plus has a rival offering and has signed up car maker Renault. Viewers, or consumers, will use their handset and on screen buttons to browse model specifications, view cars from different angles, request further information and ask for a test drive.
With interactive capabilities, the EPG will take on a role more akin to that of an internet browser, enabling the user to search out background to a particular program via a menuing system and an alphanumeric keypad on a remote control or wireless keyboard. For instance, via a modem, viewers will be able to request statistics relating to a particular player in a football match, access a team’s home page or even order tickets to a match. Related advertisements might trail pay-per-view sports events, promote club merchandise or suggest which brand of corn chips to eat with the game. Comparisons between browsers and EPGs, however, fail to recognize the fundamental difference between PCs and TVs. While EPGs may rely on PC technology in the form of search engines, Internet protocols and HTML, the TV is a fundamentally different medium with a much stronger entertainment bias. As such broadcasters are keen to differentiate it from the PC which is still regarded by many as a work tool. David Harris-Evans, European managing director of web software and EPG company Spyglass Inc, believes the key to the success of interactive broadcasting will be the ease of use. Harris-Evans maintains that the mass public is not interested in what he refers to as the subjugation of the TV into the PC by a Larry Ellison or Bill Gates; that is not something the broadcast industry or consumers will go for. He asserts: Software companies are moving into an industry dominated by enormous consumer electronic firms who’ll want an input into the look and feel of the software. EPGs need to be easy to use and different from a PC experience…a Windows look and feel doesn’t make any sense at all and…Microsoft will get a rough ride if they try to implement one. OpenTV’s Jon Haas further underlines the point: People want a service they can access easily, in a familiar way…they don’t want to bother about typing in web addresses. New operators offering new services will present a threat to established broadcasters and, with viewers able to watch whatever they want, when they want, at the push of a button, traditional ideas about peak time slots, ratings and even channels as we know them will go out the window. Broadcasters will be increasingly reliant on their EPG rather than viewing times and scheduling as the means of delivering an audience. Peter Bonder, chief technical officer of set-top box company Acorn Group Plc, is adamant that the EPG will be crucial to broadcasters and viewers alike: Politically it’s a hot battle between broadcasters – he who controls the EPG controls where the viewer will go in the future. With EPGs increasingly playing a gatekeeper role in the new multi-channel environment, Thomas Blonz of Ovum Ltd, co-author of a recent report on digital television, sees scope for abuse. Broadcasters may seek to gain competitive advantage by privileging their content over that of rivals, by putting competitors’ offerings lower down the pecking order on their EPG.
BBC at the bottom
Acorn’s Peter Bonder echoes these concerns; The BBC would be concerned if BSkyB was transmitting EPG information for all systems and offering 48 channels revolving around its content with the BBC at the bottom. Chris Townsend, marketing director at British Interactive Broadcasting, said it had not yet decided on the order in which channels will appear on its EPG. However, he stressed that viewers will be able to look up information relating to all channels available on digital satellite via its EPG – including its rivals. OpenTV’s Jon Haass maintains that while the right choice of EPG will offer the broadcaster significant advantages, the key beneficiary will be the viewer. Haass also plays down fears that control over the EPG might give certain broadcasters an unfair advantage, pointing out that viewers would be offered more than one EPG and would also be able to book-mark their favorite channels. He adds: Ultimately it’s the user who wins here. They’ll retain control; no one will be prevented from accessing their favorite channel. EPGs will be important but quality content will always win the day.