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TV seen following Net model

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CIOL Bureau
New Update

Kenneth Li

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NEW YORK: Search engine, meet the television set. Amid a battle to rule the living room of the future, cable television and phone companies are ripping a page from playbooks written by Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. to help navigate through the thousands of shows made possible by next-generation TV.

Rather than passively flipping through a conventional electronic program guide much in the same way they would a print TV Guide, viewers are more likely to actively search for programs as they would on a Web site, top executives in both industries said at the Reuters Telecommunications, Cable and Satellite Summit this week.

These search capabilities become more important as pay television services fill up advanced services such as video-on-demand and digital video recorders (DVR) with more programming.

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"If you're going to bring Internet-like capabilities to television, eventually, search is going to be as critical to the TV as it is to the PC," Brian Roberts, chief executive of top U.S. cable operator Comcast Corp., said at the summit, held at Reuters U.S. headquarters in New York.

Borrowing ideas from the Internet is tinged with irony at a time when the very archetypes for how to improve TV -- Google and Yahoo -- are both planting stakes in the entertainment market. Yahoo, run by former Hollywood veteran Terry Semel, has refashioned itself as an entertainment company. Google has vowed to one day sell access to video.

All told, TV's shift could have broad implications in the $65 billion U.S. TV advertising market. Broadcast television networks that base their advertising rates on the programming schedule, are already bracing for the impact of DVRs.

The programming schedule business model could well disappear if viewers stopped channel surfing for shows.

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"I don't even know what network most of the programs I watch now are on, because I entered in my TiVo," Bill Smith, chief technology officer of BellSouth Corp. told Reuters at the Summit. "I couldn't tell you, is it on ABC or Fox. I just don't even know, and I don't care anymore."

Roberts said Comcast has held early discussions on how Google can improve its high-speed Internet portal and suggested those talks could have broad implications for cable TV.

Comcast has also begun testing voice navigation as a way to find programming, letting a viewer find shows by speaking into a remote.

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Comcast's peers and rivals are not far behind. Local phone company SBC Communications Inc. is working up its own TV search functions, which could include Yahoo. Verizon Communications Inc., another Baby Bell, sees similar features in its future. Even stalwarts in the cable and satellite TV industries concede that conventional programming guides make new services hard to navigate.

"You will get to the point where people will essentially Google what they want," Lawrence Babbio, president of Verizon said at the Reuters Telecommunications, Cable and Satellite Summit in New York this week, speaking about the future of Internet technology-based TV service.

Getting the more than 110 million U.S. TV households to alter their couch-potato habits remains a big hurdle, executives said.

But more clutter on the channel line-up and an antiquated on-screen program guide that's little more than a literal interpretation of the printed TV Guide index might only frustrate many viewers.

Executives and some analysts also see creating search engines for television as a defining competitive advantage for cable and phone company video-on-demand services, setting it apart from satellite television operators unable to deliver two-way video-on-demand.

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