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MemoryLane - On a Scroll

Fri, 04/30/2010 - 8:20pm
Stewart Schley Media & technology writer, Denver, Colo.

The rise of cable television in the 1980s demanded more than what the legacy TV Guide Magazine format could deliver.

Stewart SchleyOn the cover of the first edition of TV Guide Magazine, published in April 1953, a puzzled-looking baby peers out across the page as if in search of an explanation. The infant, Desi Arnaz Jr., was the child of sitcom stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and his appearance on the premiere issue of the once-iconic periodical seemed altogether appropriate. A convergence of technology and economics had given birth to a new medium, and like the child photographed for the cover, nobody seemed entirely sure what to make of it yet.

One thing was certain, though: You needed to know what was on. Thus, the idea for TV Guide – a national magazine about TV that was produced from a merger of regional guides in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City. Newspaper publisher Walter Annenberg, who had purchased the three regional titles, was onto something from the start, and his digest-size publication quickly established itself as a circulation juggernaut, grabbed by shoppers and tucked into grocery bags at the checkout line where the 15-cent magazine was commonly displayed. By 1970, TV Guide boasted the highest circulation of any U.S. magazine, at nearly 20 million weekly copies.

For close to 30 years, TV Guide maintained its supremacy in the printed TV listings category, thriving even as local newspapers published their own daily and weekly guides to stations and schedules. But the rise of cable television in the 1980s demanded more than what the legacy TV Guide format could deliver, what with dozens of new channels and differing lineups – even within a single metro area. While TV Guide gamely attempted to keep up with the changes by sprouting new grid designs and regional editions, a little-known Oklahoma company devised what it hoped was a better idea: a guide to TV listings that appeared on the TV itself.

United Video Holdings of Tulsa introduced the first version of its onscreen guides 25 years ago. The Electronic Program Guide was a data application that ran from an off-the-shelf computer plugged in at cable system headends and was supplied with data via the vertical blanking interval of WGN, the Chicago station United Video distributed nationally.

The end product was a humble, slow-scrolling grid of program listings by channel and time. For cable systems with 35 or more channels, it could take several minutes to display the full range of programs available at any moment in time – a trait viewers found annoying. Behind the visual displays, most cable operators added music from a local or national radio station. The combination of the slow-moving graphics and a lull-youto-sleep soundtrack gave the Electronic Program Guide a strangely calming quality, albeit one that was tolerable only in small doses.

United Video, aware of the shortcomings, began to make incremental adjustments to the visual display. An updated version in 1988 bifurcated the screen with listings on the bottom half and full-motion video – often promotions for upcoming shows – on the top. A new name, Prevue Guide, sought to add some brand pizzazz, and by now the listings of data and video content were beamed from a dedicated satellite transponder, not a fallow slice of broadcast television spectrum. United Video also upgraded the computers used to process the guide data, allowing for richer graphic displays.

Despite the improvements, Prevue Guide remained an almost quaintly imperfect system. Dependent on notoriously touchy Amiga 2000 computers made by Commodore, the guide was prone to data errors that would interfere with the listings flowing on subscribers’ TV sets, occasionally producing inaccurate listings and bizarre error messages.

Even so, United Video’s persistence in convincing cable operators to distribute its guide platform resulted in a satisfying David and Goliath moment when, in 1999, United Video purchased the venerable TV Guide for roughly $2 billion. Some 45 years after Annenberg launched his magazine, a little-known cable industry upstart had taken it over.

The pairing was fleeting, however, as United Video itself was swallowed up by Gemstar International Group in the same year. Coincident with cable’s deployment of digital video technologies, the “E” in the Gemstar-TV Guide EPG platform morphed into an “I” – for “interactive” – as a new breed of highly detailed TV listings platforms arose. In turn, they’re now being challenged by inventive new schemes for display and discovery of video content from the likes of Boxee, Kylo, Hulu and others. Although all of them owe a tip of the hat to the early work done by United Video, none of them (blessedly) have preserved the scroll.

E-Mail: stewart@stewartschley.com

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