The freedom of choice is both cherished and sought after, and we will always want more. Having an abundance of options to choose from ignites a sense of excitement within us, because we realize we’re on the threshold of possibly encountering something new and incredible.
This is especially true when it comes to digital media. It’s like magic; we can know everything and watch almost anything, whenever we want it, no matter where we are. Further, we’re experiencing a new golden age of TV, with more high-quality content in production than ever before whilst online video has developed into a new creative genre of its own. We’ve never had it so good, as the saying goes, when it comes to the amount of access viewers have to visual content today.
So why doesn’t watching TV “feel better” than it does?
There is now a familiar problem shared amongst customers. Simply offering more content to viewers isn’t adding anything when the stuff that’s relevant and appealing is not being surfaced for them. Especially when they know the content is out there, but just can’t find or keep track of it. In fact, there are a great many who are so overwhelmed by the myriad of options and poor discovery experience presented to them that they’ll simply “default” by going back to a channel they’re already familiar with. Oftentimes they’ll turn the system off altogether. All of the available data supports this: the number of channels being viewed regularly is still low, viewers are frustrated and questioning the costs. Bundles are getting skinnier and cord cutting is becoming commonplace.
Meanwhile, the IP delivery transition means that apps are becoming the new “channels”. Content providers are widely embracing this new paradigm by offering services directly to viewers via their own content delivery platforms. This is a logical step and looks to be the direction of travel for the industry. In fact, the whole concept of “Smart TV” seems to be finally coming of age. The latest TVs and STBs are able to act as complete media centers, giving users the ability to check the weather, look up the news, indulge in a little shopping and casual gaming – all via the big screen. Although you’ve been able to do all of this from your phone for some time now, experiencing it from the comfort of your couch through the big screen adds a new, exciting dimension to otherwise mundane tasks. While the medium will work out what does and doesn’t work, indications are showing that consumers are excited about these cool new features.
This could be great news for consumers and the industry alike, as the divide between Pay TV and OTT service begins to blur and we see more content and content types made available on your “TV service”. But unfortunately, this is dramatically worsening the problem of discovery. Isolating the content people want in an app-centric UX framework is just wrong for viewers, plain and simple. Navigating between content apps searching for something to watch is a difficult and taxing process. If apps become the new channels, then without unified discovery features we’re stuck with something that’s the equivalent of an EPG with no listings! No clues as to what’s available at all, just the aloof diffidence of the “icon wall”.
This is threatening to become a serious problem, one that makes the connected TV experience at best frustrating and at worst essentially a broken medium – an outcome that benefits no one. The recent demise of connected TV operator Net2TV offers a stark warning for the industry. Even with distribution on 40m devices, they could not build a viable audience for content from Time and other mainstream media brands. Not because nobody was interested, but because no one could find their stuff. As CEO Tom Morgan put it, speaking with nScreenmedia, “Our experience with Philips TVs versus other devices shocked me. We saw 15 times the usage through that platform, because we were located right next to Netflix”.
Universal search and discovery can help prevent such a tragic outcome. The technology to index content across multiple sources and platforms has existed for as long as the platforms themselves. Content providers make their metadata available for indexing, the discovery service surfaces it for viewers. It’s a simple enough system and it’s why the web works like it does. Recently, though, Apple’s latest showcase of a universal search feature driven by Siri on the new Apple TV seems to have brought the issue to the forefront of consumers’ attention. While there are other products that can do this through both voice and key input, their announcement has finally raised the profile of universal search and discovery in an industry that seemingly didn’t recognize the seriousness of the problem. With an integrated and universal discovery system, the TV can become a gateway to limitless content derived from a rich ecosystem of app providers, which makes all the sense in the world.
And yet, there are still problems. As the popularity of OTT services continues to grow, the providers gaining the most traction, including OTT giant Netflix, have shifted their strategy to deliberately fragment their customers’ experience by preventing their libraries from being openly indexed. It’s not just Netflix, either. Many such services are preventing third-party services from “deep linking” to their content. To be clear, this isn’t about “protecting” their content. This is about “owning the consumer” and, consequently, the discovery experience, thereby reducing the threat of competition from other OTT competitors by locking the consumer into their channel or app.
Of course, they can be and are persuaded to open their catalogs to universal indexing – with the right sort of commercial inducements, that is. But this is not the way to make TV – or any media platform for that matter – great, because it puts the consumer second. Gary Myer, writing for Wired Magazine, puts it succinctly when he says, “This is not how an integrated entertainment service should operate. The consumer experience has to be the primary consideration”. When the corporate self-interest of “owning the consumer experience” takes precedence over providing the best service and user experience possible, the fantastic potential for quality, availability and flexibility of content – a future we should be working towards – is being put at risk.
This could be so good. Imagine the integrated cross-promotion of highly relevant content, products, games and services, all stemming directly from the content being viewed, both linear and on-demand. Imagine how much the system will know about the user and their preferences, giving it the ability to target and refine the recommendations, improving the viewer’s experience as a whole. To let the user curate their content across linear, on-demand and through their favourite apps. Imagine the immense value this could bring to advertising by allowing marketers to know what people are truly interested in.
All of this is possible, today.
European cable and telecom players view OTT services as a way to add value to their offerings. This is indeed what they can and will do, becoming an intrinsic part of hybrid PayTV / OTT offerings. But this will only be compelling if due attention is given to fixing the discovery experience, while also solving the technical and commercial issues that are currently dragging that experience down. OTT operators see a land-grab opportunity, which is now in full swing as they look to roll products and services out quickly and lock customers in. But all of this has to be sustainable, and that’s only possible by meeting consumer need. All sides of the digital content trade need to assess their product and distribution strategies to collaborate with each other to meet the needs of consumers.
The demand for quality content, such as original productions, new releases and sports, is not new and will always be there. We now live in an era of unprecedented abundance, so whilst it was once about finding the good stuff, it’s now become more about finding the relevant stuff. Difficulty here can discourage viewers from consuming any content at all, discourage new providers from launching new products and limit the commercial value of both the audience and the medium as a whole. Personalization, universal search and discovery are the keys to solving this, improving user satisfaction, increasing viewership and providing the platform for a viable and dynamic content ecosystem.
Tom Laidlaw is VP UK & Europe for Kannuu. This article first appeared here on Videonet.