February 1, 1999 4:00 AM PST

TV Guide vs. Microsoft?

Could TV Guide one day compete with Microsoft?

As odd as it may sound, that could eventually happen in some business areas as lines dividing the worlds of television and computers continue to blur.

TV Guide, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, is set to relaunch its online and interactive entertainment news and program listings today during the magazine's new awards show. The renewed push into the digital age is the first public fruit of the June acquisition of TV Guide by Tele-Communications Incoporated and United Satellite Video Group.

See special report: When worlds collide Prevue Interactive, a service offered by USVG, will be renamed TV Guide Interactive. Available to more than 1.5 million subscribers, the service is growing by 10,000 a day, the company said.

With a remote control, viewers can check listings by time, channel, category, or name and use the service for such conveniences as scanning program schedules in advance. While such uses sound simple, they present enormous business opportunities as the electronic programming guide becomes one of the most-used applications in the digital TV set-top boxes that are being developed and deployed by cable companies.

"An interactive guide is one of the drivers of the digital set-top box even in its current form," said Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies.

Indeed, some in the industry believe that these guides will be the equivalent of Web browsers for digital TV because they will allow consumers to navigate an increasingly complicated array of program choices. As such, they also represent a significant piece of screen real estate to control, especially as cable companies start to use these guides to offer viewers the ability to buy merchandise related to ads or shows they've seen.

Microsoft has been eager to move in to the emerging market, having purchased Internet set-top service provider WebTV to further those goals. One of WebTV's key features is its interactive program guide and the ability to link shows with Web-based advertising.

Of late, the company has separated the WebTV service from earlier hardware roots to expand its use to other set-top boxes made by different companies. For example, the company has partnered with TCI to provide its operating system software in digital set-tops.

However, TCI also owns a significant chunk of TV Guide and appears to be willing to use its properties to ensure that it continues to command viewer attention--in other words, TV Guide could conceivably provide the technological interface for these boxes, not WebTV.

TV Guide, facing declines in ad pages in the print edition, isn't waiting for widespread distribution of new digital set-top boxes. The new online site will have a number of advanced features, including the ability to order pay-per-view programs over the Internet.

"We are taking the Prevue Online guide and marrying it into the TV Guide Entertainment Network," said Jessica Marshall, managing editor and interim general manager of TV Guide Online. Prevue Online had a number of cutting-edge features but was not as well known as some other sites, she said.

Now the site, which gets a claimed 32 million page views a month, will show video clips of coming programs, a feature for notifying people by email when their favorites are about to air, a comprehensive movie database, and soon a database of episodes and celebrity information.

"These are tools for modern living," Marshall quipped.

TV Guide, which contracts with Microsoft's WebTV service for program listings, may be looking to partner with high-speed Internet services such as @Home for enhanced viewing features.

"Given the comprehensiveness of our video library and our development muscle, we're a natural partner with broadband," Marshall said. "We haven't cast our lot with any particular operation, though."

 

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