Christy Tanner is a little bit like the Marissa Mayer of social TV. Tanner, who is the EVP and GM of TVGuide.com and TV Guide Mobile, has a huge audience – but most of those users aren’t exactly Foursquare- and Instagram-using Silicon Valley insiders. They don’t come to TVGuide.com to collect check-ins or badges, but to watch TV. A lot of it. And from a company like hers, they first and foremost expect what its name promises: a TV guide.
But TV is changing, and so is the way people are consuming it, regardless of whether they’re San Francisco hipsters or families in rural Texas. Netflix (s NFLX) now has 24 million subscribers in the U.S., and more and more families are using multiple devices to access TV shows, with the iPad (s AAPL) quickly becoming everyone’s favorite on-demand screen.
And with that, Tanner has a problem that’s a bit like the one Mayer is facing at Yahoo (s YHOO) now: How do you evolve while the world changes around you without scaring away your huge legacy user base? Tanner has been doing this by keeping the traditional grid that most people associate with a brand like TV Guide alive, even though many TV startup founders tend to mock it. Instead of throwing it out altogether, she is augmenting it with the Watchlist, a personalized guide that first launched on TVGuide.com a year ago and has since been used by 500,000 people.
This week, the Watchlist is coming to the TV Guide iOS app, which now also features in-app links to content on iTunes, HBO Go and Hulu Plus. The Watchlist also allows users to check into shows and keep track of the episodes they’ve already seen, and there are some basic social sharing and commenting features – but don’t expect too many bells and whistles. Instead of social activity streams, the app emphasizes TV and celebrity gossip.
“News is our social feature,” said Tanner when she stopped by our office to demonstrate the app earlier this week. In other words: The app gives people something to talk about instead of making the conversation itself the centerpiece.
That doesn’t mean that Tanner’s team ignores what other social TV startups are up to. A third of TVGuide.com’s 66-strong team are engineers, and Tanner recently aqui-hired the developers of the social TV guide Fav.tv. “We are really hands-on in the way we build our things,” she explained.
That also means that the team is constantly evaluating new developments in areas like synched second-screen experiences and remote control functionality. But unlike others, Tanner doesn’t want to roll out experiments with select partners, which would limit functionality to just one type of DVR or one set-top-box from one satellite provider. “We need to be comprehensive,” she told me, adding: “It’s a lot harder to execute at scale.”
Still, Tanner wants to eventually add more social and second-screen functionality to her mobile apps, and considers the newly rolled out iOS app a first step. “We are definitely going to integrate automatic content recognition functionality within the next six to nine months,” she told me. One of the first areas could be synchronized ads. Said Tanner: “That’s going to come very soon.”