TVGuide.com spruces up to appeal to more viewers

The following observation may sound strange, but it's important to TV Guide Online's general manager, Paul Greenberg: Don't confuse TV Guide the magazine with TVGuide.com, the website he runs.

The prime-time television season that begins this month is the first in which the two TV Guides are entirely separate. A series of deals last winter sent the print publication to investment firm OpenGate Capital. Film and TV company Lionsgate picked up the Web operation as well as cable's TV Guide Network.

Now Greenberg is eager to show that TVGuide.com has a vibrant future, even as the magazine introduced in 1953 looks back wistfully at its glory days. The website blends listings, news, social networking, video and other features to appeal to a new generation of people who relate to TV in novel ways. "We've basically taken the TV Guide brand and turned it digital for a whole new audience," he says.

The effort appears to be working. About 17.1 million different people have visited TVGuide.com each month this year, up 35.9% from the same period last year, according to data from Webtrends and Omniture.

Portal-based services AOL TV, Yahoo TV and MSN TV attract more unique visitors. But TVGuide.com says it beats the field — including Eonline.com, EW.com and TV.com— in the number of pages people view, how long they stay and the number of times they visit each month.

New initiatives could improve those results. Beginning today, TVGuide.com will enable visitors to log in with their Facebook information to see which shows their friends like and share thoughts. "About 40% of Facebook users have filled out what their favorite TV shows are," Greenberg says. "We're going to give you a status bar that will give you instant access to all of the information we have about those shows."

The effort to make TVGuide.com the top destination for television fans includes the introduction last month of enhancements to a tool for people with personalized iGoogle pages. A widget that displays listings for favorite shows now makes it easy to share viewing plans with friends.

TV networks will want to see how well these changes work. The Internet is the No. 3 source of program information, after cable or satellite program guides and ads for shows.

"About 5% to 10% (of viewers surveyed) say they look for information about a show or watch it online," says Dave Poltrack, CBS chief research officer. "That was zero two years ago."

Investors have high expectations for Greenberg.

Some Lionsgate shareholders, including activist Carl Icahn, said the company overpaid when it spent $241.6 million for the TV Guide cable channel and online unit. In May a private-equity arm of JPMorgan Chase paid Lionsgate $123 million for 49% of the combined operations.

It's hard to judge the Web unit's performance. Lionsgate doesn't break out its financial results.

Greenberg's biggest fear is that TV networks will begin to charge viewers to watch their most popular shows on sites including Hulu.com. That "would force people to seek alternatives," he says, possibly including user-generated videos.

But Greenberg is optimistic.

"People are looking more toward digital sources (for TV news and listings), and you see that evidenced by the fact that there are fewer print outlets offering that kind of information," he says.

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