A screen shot of the Watchlist from the new TV Guide Mobile app. (TV Guide Mobile )
"What's on?" used to be an easy question to answer -- all you had to do was look at a TV program guide and scroll through the channels. Now, however, television programs are being delivered not only by hundreds of broadcast and cable networks, but also by websites and services whose inventory is available on demand. It used to seem as if reruns of the "Law & Order" franchise were always on, somewhere on the dial; these days it's literally true.
Dozens of companies are now offering program guides for the online-TV era, replacing the familiar two-dimensional list of shows -- channels listed in rows, times across the top -- with something more personalized and interactive. Over the last week, two companies from opposite ends of the business -- TV Guide Mobile, whose name is synonymous with program guides, and start-up GetGlue -- offered new versions of their apps for discovering what's on. The former uses the listings grid as a jumping-off point; the latter simply ignores it.
TV Guide Mobile's affinity for the grid is understandable -- the company is a descendant of Gemstar, the firm whose patent over the listings grid made it a dominant provider of electronic guides to cable operators and set manufacturers. (It's current owners are Lionsgate, a film studio, and JP Morgan's private equity arm, One Equity Partners.) But Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of TVGuide.com and TV Guide Mobile, argues that the grid is the right place to start because it's familiar and because linear TV is what's most in demand.
"This is a product that people want. This a product that people ask for," Tanner said in a recent interview.
The new version of the app, which is available only for iOS devices for now, enables users to do several things from the listings grid. Tapping on a program calls up a description, along with the ability to post a check-in with comments on Facebook, Twitter or Yahoo; set an alert to remind the user when the show or future episodes are about to air; or add the program to one's "Watchlist" of personal favorites.
Alternatively, users can see lists of the new programs on that evening and the programs with the most check-ins by TV Guide users (Thursday night's leaders: "Big Brother," followed by "Rookie Blue" and "Saving Hope"). The latter is TV Guide's version of a guide shaped by social media. Users also can display lists of programs featured by TV Guide's staff; the current options are Emmy-winners and nominees, and season premieres. And they can browse through various lists of TV shows available online, for free or for pay, and play them if they have the appropriate app installed. The listings and links are supplemented by an impressive amount of news stories, clips and photo galleries produced by TV Guide's editorial staff.
The app doesn't provide personalized recommendations to help sort through the haystack of programs available online; instead, it offers lists of the most popular programs, editors' picks and selections made by a weekly guest curator. Alas, many of the editors' picks and the guest curator's choices are available only to subscribers of HBO or Hulu Plus, or for a fee from the iTunes store.
Where things get really interesting is the Watchlist. This is where users can find the episodes of their favorite programs that are now available online, as well as seeing listings for the time and channel they'll be broadcast on over the coming two weeks (with the option of checking in, setting an alert or, if you're a Comcast subscriber, instructing your DVR to record the show). The Watchlist will also indicate when the programs are available from Netflix on DVD.
Tanner said the Watchlist will become smarter over time, offering recommendations and TV Guide-produced content related to the programs chosen by the user. The Watchlist will be the foundation for a highly personalized guide, she said, one that maps the massive amount of data aggregated by TV Guide to each user's preferences and profile.
But it's a work in progress at this point. The company is still integrating online video sites and services into the app; Tanner said the app has eight at this point, compared with 120 on TV Guide's website. Some of the sites, such as Fox.com, rely on Adobe's Flash technology, which Apple doesn't support. Others, such as Netflix and Amazon, present other challenges that haven't been surmounted yet.
GetGlue, by contrast, offers no grid on its new iPad app (iPhone and Android versions coming later). Instead, it starts with its version of TV Guide's Watchlist, which it calls the Guide, displaying the shows the user has identified as favorites. Picking those favorites involves either searching for shows by name or combing through lists generated, opaquely, by GetGlue. It's cumbersome at first, but once you've picked a few, GetGlue's suggestions help fill out the listings.