What networks fear

MTVN's Rosenthal warns that EPGs could be new gatekeepers

For all the hype over sophisticated electronic-program guides that are becoming a cornerstone of digital cable systems, not everybody's delighted. EPG developers' aggressive plans threaten to push programmers on "multiple battlegrounds" with operators and guide developers, MTV Networks President Mark Rosenthal cautioned.

Rosenthal fears that by framing Internet-like pages around MTVN channels such as Nickelodeon, MTV and VH1, guides will actually take control of his programming and, more importantly, his advertising.

"What I'm hearing and what a lot of programmers hear is another perceived consumer need, but in reality what you guys are going to become is another gatekeeper here," Rosenthal told guide executives at a Kagan Seminars session on broadband investment in New York last week. "We've already dealt with another set of gatekeepers"-cable operators-"and made our peace."

Interactive set-tops promise to make television look more and more like Internet. Instead of turning on a TV and getting TV, viewers may be faced with an initial screen offering many choices. Think of AOL, where subscribers are presented with a couple of screens of information and a pop-up ad before they can surf the Web. Being shut out from that first screen could hurt networks. Worse is the prospect that operators and guide developers frame a network's picture with such graphics, including advertising.

The issue of what operators and guides have the right to do is going to set off extensive talks. "At the end of the day I'm going to have to renegotiate all my deals," Rosenthal said.