LAS VEGAS, Jan 9 (Reuters) - U.S. cable and satellite TV providers are rolling out new services to solve a problem that drives customers crazy - which channel is HBO? And how do I find the latest episode of “The Walking Dead?”
Faced with competition from Internet upstarts with graphical guides that are relatively painless to use, traditional media companies are adding voice control to remotes, cutting the number of buttons, and reducing clutter from screens.
The companies are adopting the technology to help keep customers from cancelling subscriptions in favor of streaming services such as Netflix Inc, Amazon and Hulu, which are far cheaper and also come with user-friendly guides to make finding shows easier.
As consumers become used to easy-to-search websites and mobile apps that load video with a few clicks, the clunky navigation of older pay TV guides has stoked major frustration in living rooms.
“Every consumer will agree it’s terrible,” Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, pay TV operators showed how they are building on efforts of recent years to move away from their traditional linear, scroll-down grids. Newer guides have more pictures and make searching easier.
Charter Communications Inc unveiled a new guide that will automatically appear on its customers’ televisions this year. Features include user recommendations, similar to a strategy employed by Netflix.
Simplicity, search and discovery - “all the things you expect in a modern guide” - are included, Charter CEO Tom Rutledge said.
TRYING TO ‘ORGANIZE CHAOS’
Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, offers an updated operating system called X1, now in 5 million homes, that can respond to voice commands such as “show me movies about basketball” or “find Don Cheadle.”
Making TV shows and movies easier to find helps keep customers, said Dan Simmons, director of connected home research for research firm IHS.
“If there is so much stuff going on that you can’t find what you want, it doesn’t feel like a value,” he said. “If you can demonstrate the value of that pay TV service, people aren’t going to cord cut.”
Closely held Cox Communications said its modern Contour guide, launched in all markets in August 2013, has lured customers to new programs. Contour customers watch about 29 channels a month, compared with 22 with the old system, Cox CEO Pat Esser said.
DVR pioneer Tivo at CES promoted a new service that can search both pay TV and online streaming subscriptions like Netflix and Hulu at the same time on TVs and mobile apps. “We organize chaos for the consumer,” Tivo CEO Tom Rogers said.
As pay TV upgrades, new Internet-delivered options are coming too. Sony Corp is using its guide, described as “more visual” than a text scroll, as a selling point for its coming PlayStation streaming service.
“There’s an awful lot there that you might want to watch,” said Andrew House, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment. “The challenge is to find it. We make that much easier.”
And Dish Network Corp later this month will start selling its Web-based Sling TV service.
“The design of the programming guide will definitely not be confused with the traditional TV grid, the ones that people find cumbersome and frustrating,” said Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch. “It’s very flat and easy to use.”
At the same time, Dish showed off a new remote for its traditional TV packages that is smaller and responds to voice commands.
Netflix also is tweaking its service to reduce the number of clicks needed to access a video, said Todd Yellin, vice president of product innovation.
“We are trying to stay a step ahead,” Yellin said. (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando)