TV Times

The increase in TV and satellite channels means that electronic programme guides are gaining more influence in helping you select what you watch. Steve Bowbrick tunes in. Steve Bowbrick is chairman of Webmedia Group.

Electronic Programme Guides are the once humble devices exercising some of the finest minds in TV right now. An EPG is, at its simplest, a menu of television shows, usually organised by channel, displayed on your TV. You’ll have seen one if you’ve ever used Teletext to find out what’s on next or pressed the “menu” button on your cable remote control. At their most complex, by extension, they are rich information sources with real functions (like setting the video or finding you a last-minute package holiday). EPGs are also a battleground. It’s the accepted wisdom that the company that controls the EPG owns the viewers’ experience of the TV and can trade that ownership with advertisers and merchants.

This is precisely the premise of the BT/Matsushita/Midland Bank/Sky joint venture called BiB.

These simple-sounding EPG lists are taking on an importance out of proportion with their appearance as we enter the era of multichannel TV. Multichannel TV presents some real challenges to the broadcasters.

Keeping the attention of the viewers among the teaming competition is only the simplest of them. Broadcasters and programme-makers will want to use the emerging EPGs to market their programming – to get a little extra attention every time you turn the TV on.

The thinking is that, in a genuine multi channel world, with not dozens but hundreds, if not thousands, of channels to choose from, your guide to these channels becomes an anchor in a sea of content.

The importance of the EPGs to the regulators and policy-makers is also clear when their gateway function is taken into account. Concepts of universal service obligation and equality of access to communications will focus closely on the EPG in the next year or two as digital rolls out on terrestrial, cable and satellite.

Search one of the dozens of patented databases on the Web for the words “electronic programme guide” and you’ll find hundreds of patents covering EPGs. United States Patent Number 5629733 – incidentally belonging to US cable giant TCI and Rupert Murdoch’s News America – covers “electronic television programme guide schedule system and method with display and search of programme listings by title”. Number 5630119 – belonging to Microsoft – covers “system and method for displaying programme listings in an interactive electronic programme guide”. There are dozens like this all seeking, defensively or pre-emptively, to stamp ownership on a large enough part of the EPG to impede competition.

These patents are fascinating. They represent a kind of retrospective revenge of the telly tubbies on the information generation. If rigorously applied, many of them would – they are designed to – prevent the designers of EPGs from using functions familiar to all Web surfers – actions as simple as browsing a list organised by time are defined as proprietary in some of the more inclusive patents. It’s difficult to see how some of these patents could be defended in © the age of ubiquitous information devices but their influence could be a real inhibition to innovation.

Almost all of these patents have their origin in the period immediately before the indiscriminate explosion we call the Internet. As a result they assume certain limitations. Content in the analogue world cannot be marked up – it cannot carry information about itself – so descriptive information, programme times and so on, has to be married with the content manually or carried in a parallel stream of data (much as subtitles can be carried in the Teletext signal). This limits the richness of the presentation.

Analogue broadcast content is also linear. One programme comes after another (remember that – it will seem funny in a few years). By contrast, in the digital world, content comes at you in any order you like. This explodes the linear presentation of TV listings. A database organised by genre, personality, theme, setting, mood or author will be a better match to the experience of digital media than the “stripes” of the TV schedules.

EPGs are a category of “meta-content” – content about content. As content of all kinds proliferates we have to spend more time ploughing through meta-content trying to find the good stuff. This is the paradox of the information age. We are distanced from content by its profusion.

This means meta-content has to be well-designed. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in it, it should work. The problem is that most EPGs don’t work. This is because they are designed by TV designers and belong to the age before the information age – to the TV age (here I want you to picture a Fifties front room with a little TV set in the corner). The dominant theme is, by necessity, that of selection and the dominant motif selection’s sidekick the menu.

The terminology of the EPG is terminally infected by the dreary logic of the list. Look at the EPGs that are already in your life – Teletext, the listings screens put up by your cable company or by Sky – these are two-dimensional grids organised like the Radio Times in 1956. They are suited to an age of spectrum scarcity, Reithian patriarchy and the test card.

The bad news is that even the most advanced of the EPGs emerging at the fringes of the multi-channel universe are tragically wedded to the linear, two-dimensional visualisations we bring with us from earlier media. These are pages, screens, cards, menus, lists, lists and lists. The missing dimension is the dimension of information, of navigation in information space.

When William Gibson first visualised cyberspace he did so precisely as a space – a crudely-drawn 3D environment through which his characters navigated, hopping from information source to source using visual cues to their importance, size, content.

It’s clear enough that this kind of floating world of data is unlikely to come to your TV any time soon. The comic limitations of headsets and datagloves alone will keep us in front of our screens rather than in them for a while.

This doesn’t mean we’ll miss out on the third dimension though. The key is to substitute the keyword “navigation” for “selection”. Selection is what you do when you run your finger down a menu. Navigation is what you do when you jump off from a Yahoo search into the information space of the Web. Navigation is spatial, selection is linear.

Some of you will have seen a category of quite simple-minded 3D visualisation already in use in the various interactive TV trials around the world – it’s called the Mall and it typically takes the form of a rather idealised picture of a… mall – organised so that you click to enter and click again to enter a store or department, working your way down until, typically, the designer’s imagination fails and we get a… menu! These models, literal to a point, infantilise the user and are shown to be ineffective at organising large quantities of information – precisely the task of the new EPGs.

The benefits – to users, advertisers and media-owners – will be huge. This is not an academic argument. Properly-organised information encourages use, breaks down barriers to novel content, builds viewer confidence and increases the sheer pleasure of watching the TV.

Many people are of the opinion that the Web and its cousins can only erode TV viewing. This is true – our time budgets are limited – but the less well-known fact is that a good EPG can counter this trend among the time-poor simply by telling them more clearly what’s on and when, making intelligent (three-dimensional) connections between programmes, personalities, themes and genres.

A generation of designers schooled in the three-dimensional complexity of the Web is ready to tackle the EPG and to improve the experience of the viewer. Thinking of television as an information-space like the Web will transform the way we design these contested guides and improve the experience for all.

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