Web rival takes on TV Guide

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While TV Guide might have a hefty 13 million subscribers, its Web site has yet to rule TV listings.

TV Guide Online, now called the TV Guide Entertainment Network or TVGEN, is being challenged by GistTV. Produced by Gist Communications, New York, GistTV has made inroads in the last six months. It's tied up content, distribution and licensing deals with Internet Movie Database, NBC Interactive Neighborhood, digital TV provider NetChannel, CNN Interactive, America Online and Turner Entertainment. Its marketing has consisted of sponsorships--including one with Roxy.com, a satellite TV system--and banner ads. Last week it launched a campaign for Unified Products' Sembay crackers that targets consumers geographically.


Gist CEO Jonathan Greenberg said the company expects to finalize more deals in the next few weeks, including one with a top-five trafficked Web site and another to give it a greater presence on AOL. These upcoming relationships will make Gist "the most widely distributed TV listings guide over the Internet," Mr. Greenberg predicted.

However, Gist still has some catching up to do. Currently it reports 375,000 monthly visits, compared to TVGEN's 3.1 million monthly visits.

Gist has built its strategy around licensing its listings service to other media companies, often customizing the content and listings, which it compiles with Tribune Media Services and Nielsen Media Research.


When users input their ZIP codes, the site can give personalized TV listings for 11,000 different cable systems around the country. TVGEN now can personalize TV listings for 100 systems, a number it plans to increase to 11,500 by April, the company said.

But licensing TVGEN piecemeal doesn't interest Matt Jacobson, exec VP at News America Digital Publishing. News America Digital is a division of News Corp., which also owns TVGEN, along with Fox Sports Online and Fox News Online.


The goal is to "leverage external distribution as much as we can without jeopardizing the site's overall experience," Mr. Jacobson said, explaining that's why TVGEN has been selective about its partners. So far it has affiliations with WebTV, with Yahoo! for a co-branded chat area and with a top-five trafficked Internet site, a deal which it will announce shortly.

After a slow start generating ad sales, TVGEN is picking up steam. Mr. Jacobson said ad sales are up 300% since the company took them in-house last fall. Softbank Interactive Marketing previously had handled ad sales. It has also staffed up with new hires like former Runner's World Associate Publisher David Madden, who joined TVGEN as executive VP-ad sales.


TVGEN's focus is on generating sponsorships for its content by leveraging the TV Guide brand, Mr. Jacobson said, asserting that its listings are more valuable because they are written by third-party editors, rather than compiled from press releases.


He also said the site is about to close a deal with a major advertiser to sponsor its listings area.

With its branding power, TVGEN should have trampled Gist. "If I were going up against TV Guide's print edition, I would have gone out of business six months ago," said Gist's Mr. Greenberg, who credited the Internet for leveling the playing field.


"Marketing Gist.com against [TVGEN] is a pretty scary concept," said Mark Mooradian, group director, consumer content, at Jupiter Communications. "What Gist does not want to get into is a branding war."

The fact that Gist isn't a brand name backed by a giant media company also works in its favor, Mr. Mooradian said. That allows Gist to woo companies competing with News Corp.

While "The TV Guide brand is not going to go away," and is a force to be reckoned with, he added that it's important for TVGEN to distribute its content and listings widely. If it doesn't, "somebody like Gist will come along and do it."

Copyright January 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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