WASHINGTON - After years of making money providing Internet service, cable TV companies are now tapping the power of the Web 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 are often 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.
Retaining and winning back those subscribers - while defending against a new batch of Web video challengers such as Netflix and Hulu - will be the focus of the industry's annual gathering, The Cable Show, which starts today in Washington.
Although using the Internet might seem like a no-brainer, 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 already 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, says the difference between the old box and the new one is like the difference between an old IBM computer and today's Google Chromebook, a laptop computer.
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.