When you have more than 57 channels, only a powerful EPG will tell you if there’s really nothing on. Anika Hillery roadtests Foxtel’s new online guide.

Free TV air networks and Pay TV operators are battling for the eyeballs of Australia and the handsome revenues they deliver from advertisers. Both camps are under pressure from the internet, with advertisers looking for new audiences online and the forthcoming National Broadband Network promising to, eventually, bypass traditional television entirely by deliver entertainment content directly into households. For the free-to air players, the future is looks even more competitive, with changes to legislation likely to see the entry of a fourth and even fifth terrestrial operator. Australia’s largest Pay TV provider, Foxtel, has expressed ambitions to be one of these.

To shore up their audiences, the free-to-air and pay TV operators (Optus, Austar, Foxtel and SelectTV) are being forced to put more money into programming and marketing. For example, the Freeview group, backed by ABC, SBS, Nine, Ten and Seven, is in the middle of a multi-million dollar campaign promoting more channels, for free. It’s a clear snipe at Australia’s largest Pay TV operator, Foxtel, which charges up to $120 a month for some of its content packages. But for consumers who value choice, Freeview’s 15 channels are a poor alternative to the 100-odd available from Foxtel.

Foxtel, for its part, is being aggressive with the deals being offered to subscribers, and its iQ and IQ2 recorder boxes have gone a long way to increasing its customer base, which now stands at nearly 1.6 million. There are other attractions, too, including HD channels launched last year, interactive and on-demand services and, in November this year, more high definition channels to challenge the new digital channels promised from Seven and Nine by year’s end.

IQ recording, the bad old way

Foxtels’ program guide was a monthly magazine posted to subscribers of certain packages and a clunky onscreen linear-layout electronic program guide. The magazine was the superior choice, providing at-a-glance highlights of the forthcoming month and friendly graphical cues. The table format EPG provided limited search facilities, offered no intelligence (it didn’t learn your viewing habits or make suggestions) and offered little in the way of program synopsis.

When it came to scheduling recordings to an IQ or IQ2 PVR, you didn’t so much browse the EPG for something to catch your eye, but note programs of interest as they we advertised and then quickly enter them for recording into the IQ’s Planner. Using the magazine and EPG in tandem proved the best way to plan out a fortnight’s viewing; you’d find programs of interest in the printed guide and then schedule them via the EPG in front of the telly.

Seek and ye shall find

Foxtel’s latest tilt at attracting the attention of potential consumers is a revamped website that presents video promos of key programming highlights, the ability to manage accounts online and, most usefully, an updated EPG that enables effective search of its vast channel offering married to a convenient Remote Record function.

It’s currently accessible only by computer or WAP/3G mobile phone, but the same interface is planned for the big screen in your lounge room by November.

A powerful EPG is the key to winnow the wheat from the chaff in any content universe, and Foxtel’s effort is an excellent step up from the previous implementation. It’s also a good template for Freeview to follow with its forthcoming EPG, allowing consumers to locate programs of interest, not by individual channels as they are forced to now, but by content across all channels – including online content, such as iView video. To achieve this, however, the commercial Freeview networks will need to abandon their ‘silo’ approach to program schedules which and risk sending eyeballs to their commercial competitors in the terrestrial broadcasting space. And, like, that’s ever going to happen.

Of course, a schmick and convenient EPG alone is not going to convince someone to become a Foxtel subscriber – or to buy a TiVo, Beyonwiz, Topfield or Freeview receiver – but it will help current users ‘ stay the path’.

We took it for a walk.