Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The shape of TV to come

Virgin Media's TiVo box gives an insight into the technology that will influence our viewing habits.

The way we find our way through TV content has changed roughly every 10 years, but the electronic programme guide (EPG) has been around for 15. The next step could change everything.

Until the 60s, the TV set had to be manually retuned every time the viewer wanted to watch something else. Then, push-button presets arrived and, although viewers still had to undock from the couch to surf, broadcasters fought to grab them with a view to keeping them the whole evening.

When the remote control became commonplace in the 80s, strip scheduling appeared, running a show several times a week at the same time of day to create appointments to view and break into the channel-surfing behaviour.

When digital TV came along in the 90s, the EPG became the principal navigation tool in TV, helping viewers sift through the ever-burgeoning number of channels. Programmers responded by bridging, blocking, stacking and a variety of other tactics to keep audiences from switching over.

On this timescale, we're overdue for a change. So what will replace the EPG?

The way in which people consume TV has massively diversified in recent years to include timeshifting on DVRs and using 'series link' to hoover up groups of programmes. They are streaming video from all the major broadcasters, and using the BBC's iPlayer on at least seven different platforms - PC, tablet, mobile, games console, smart TV, Blu-ray player and Virgin. They are using sites such as Hulu in the US and YouTube, and down-loading shows using BitTorrent. And still, they watch lots of plain old telly.

Let's take iPlayer. Delivery on Virgin's existing service is fairly rudimentary, not dissimilar to a conventional EPG. Go to the web, and you get a much richer experience, with images and many more categories of programming. But it's still a Web 1.0 site - you can set favourites, but this doesn't affect what's seen by anybody but you.

For a glimpse of what the future might look like, Virgin's TiVo box brings fresh functionality to vegging in front of the telly. 'Wishlists' allow viewers to nominate favourite shows, actors and directors; the box then records these and appropriate related content without further prompting, meaning new series are not missed.

Using a variant of Facebook's 'like' button, the remote control has 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' buttons by which users can tell the system which programmes they like or dislike. Over time, the box hones its ability to suggest shows the user would like, based on what it has been told in the past.

Although there's still an EPG, viewing will be influenced by analysis of the preferences and behaviours of viewers fed back to them as recommendations, just as Amazon uses similar data to make it easier to buy stuff, and Google makes search results more relevant to individuals.

Even in the Sky+ age, recording required the user to initiate it. In future, TV will learn what we like and suggest what else we might enjoy based on what others who watch similar shows give the 'thumbs up'. It will use face-recognition to tailor its recommendations to different people in the home and stream this to us when we want it.

In the past, technological change has always affected schedulers more than advertisers, who have simply evolved their approach. The channel won't die this year, or next; but its demise will mean a complete reinvention of the medium, and that's already started.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... TiVo

- TiVo was developed by Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay in the US. First public trials of the service began in 1998 in San Francisco, and it went live for the first time in 1999.

- The TiVo service was launched in the UK in the autumn of 2000, and 35,000 units were sold over the next 18 months.

- Thomson, makers of the only UK TiVo box, abandoned it in early 2002 after BSkyB launched its Sky+ service.

- In November 2009, Virgin Media entered into a partnership with TiVo to develop a converged television and broadband interactive interface for its next-generation, HD set-top boxes.

- Virgin's 1TB TiVo box offers recording of about 500 hours of standard TV or 100 hours of HD TV. The 500GB TiVo box offers 250 hours of standard TV or about 50 hours of HD TV.

- The 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' facility on the remote allows viewers to rate programmes. The TiVo box remembers what the viewer likes and suggests similar programmes.

- Viewers can also create a wishlist based on favourite shows, actors or directors and the TiVo box will automatically record shows based on those criteria.

- In February this year, Virgin Media ran a direct mail campaign to support TiVo; it had received 65,000 pre-registrations by the end of April.

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