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Cable companies upgrade viewer guides for more flexibility, easier navigation

| Thursday, June 13, 2013, 9:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — After years of making money providing Internet service, cable TV companies are tapping the power of the Internet to improve clunky program guides that are a relic of the 1990s.

Over the past year or so, Comcast Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp. and other cable providers have introduced new program guides on television set-top boxes. These improved guides act more like websites, making it easier to find movies, live TV shows and on-demand video.

It's important progress for cable TV companies, which often are criticized for providing hundreds of channels that customers don't watch. Making shows easier to find helps them justify all those channels. And that could help stave off defections to satellite and telephone companies, which have lured cable customers away with cut-rate TV services that use fancier interfaces.

Although using the Internet might seem like a no-brainer to the billions who use it worldwide, cable TV operators have been slow to adapt. For years, guides used the old X-Y axis, with channels on the left and times across the top. These were installed directly onto the set-top box. There was no way to change the format without replacing the box, which could take a year or more for all customers.

By using Internet programming language and other tools common to the Web, newer boxes are far more flexible.

These guides can now access software running on more powerful machines located elsewhere. They can make recommendations rather than simply show reams of show titles. Faster keyword searches are possible, and cover art brings life to what once were text-only program listings. The use of Internet programming language means smartphones and tablets can also be used to control the box.

As important, updates can be done from afar and redesigns are as easy as changing a website. That means new features can be created and popular ones given more prominence. Comcast says it has updated its guide 1,200 times since introducing its X1 set-top box in May 2012.

Marcien Jenckes, general manager for Comcast's cable TV services, said the difference between the old box and the new one is like the difference between an IBM computer that ran on a text-based DOS system and today's Google Chromebook, a laptop computer that gains most of its functionality from being able to access services online.

“The prior boxes were limited by what they could carry on them,” he said. “The current boxes are essentially limitless in terms of what they can access remotely.”

Since the X1 came out, Comcast says viewing time for video on demand has increased nearly 20 percent among users who have it, partly because it's easier to find things to watch. Comcast says customers are watching more channels and discovering more shows. Comcast isn't saying how many subscribers have the new X1 boxes, but it said that half of its 21.9 million TV subscribers are eligible, with the rest expected by the end of the year.

Although the company still lost a net 359,000 TV subscribers in the 12 months through March, according to the latest figures, Jenckes said that when more customers are more engaged with their TV service, they should stick around longer.

“It's still early, but every indication is positive,” he said.

Time Warner Cable Inc., the second-largest cable TV provider behind Comcast with 12.1 million subscribers, also is planning to introduce an improved guide this year through new set-top boxes that use Internet tools to make them more versatile and adaptable.

In November, Cox Communications Inc. updated its Internet-enabled Trio guide to include personalized recommendations for up to eight members of a household. The service adds diamonds to programs in the channel guide that individual users might like, based on which movies and shows they've watched in the past and whether they clicked to “like” or “dislike” them.

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