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Screen Wars

While the real-world real estate market is in a tailspin, at CES it seems that everyone is still angling for a prime piece of property — the television screen.

For most Americans today, the cable or satellite company controls the interface they see on the tube, offering program guides and pay-per-view menus. But as more TVs are connected directly to the Internet, or to an Internet-linked device like a TiVo box, a number of powerful players are planning land grabs.

“The incumbent video service providers have a big, fat bull’s eye on their foreheads,” says analyst Will Richmond of Broadband Directions. “All these new initiatives are basically aimed at stealing from the $100 billion a year subscription business, which the incumbents have basically owned since the beginning of time.”

In Las Vegas, Yahoo is showing its Yahoo Connected TV service, which will be integrated into some new sets from Samsung, Sony, and LG that will hit the market this spring. It plasters a kind of “toolbar” across the bottom of the screen, offering quick links to weather forecasts, stock market info, eBay auctions, and family photo albums. These “widgets,” or mini-applications, can be operated with the remote control — no keyboard necessary.

TiVo is hoping that its new on-screen search engine will win the TV interface wars. It hunts for content not just on cable or broadcast channels, but YouTube videos, digital rentals from Amazon and CinemaNow, and (soon) streaming titles from Netflix. With every search, it displays a graphical parade of “related content” images at the top of the screen; a query for the cancelled-but-still-popular series “Arrested Development” suggested that the viewer might also enjoy “Raising Arizona” or “The Office.”

Sling Media, a Silicon Valley start-up that got gobbled up by EchoStar, is pushing its own programming guide today at CES, dubbed SlingGuide. Netflix’s streaming movie service, already built into game consoles and set-top boxes, is now making its way inside new TVs and Blu-ray players. And Sonic Solutions, the company that acquired movie purveyor CinemaNow last year, has its own Cineplayer interface that serves up flicks on various set-top boxes and connected TVs.

“Everyone has new ideas about what the interface should look like, and what it should do,” says Mark Ely, EVP of strategy at Sonic Solutions. “That’s bound to create some confusion for consumers, who just want the easiest solution for getting the TV shows and movies they want.”

And cable and satellite providers are bound to try to defend their long-held turf. “They always worry that someone is trying to make an end-run around them,” says Eric Becker, a corporate communications exec at Starz Entertainment.

Richmond of Broadband Directions says, “I don’t think cable or satellite operators have been asleep to the problems of navigation or the value of the TV interface. But by the standards of Web navigation, their offerings still seem really basic.”

“The more that all these new players innovate,” Richmond concludes, “the more that the incumbents are going to be forced to innovate.”

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