After two back to back events, IFA at Berlin and IBC at Amsterdam, its finally good to get back home. These are two places where you would expect a lot to happen in the consumer electronics space and the closely related content-space. I took the opportunity to attend a few conferences this time at IBC and an interesting one of them was titled “From EPG to PPG”. Eminent panelists presented and discussed their views and I took the opportunity to get inspired an jot down a few thoughts.

How old is the TV guide? Any guesses?

Program guides a.k.a TV Guides have been around since as early as 1940’s, albeit in the ‘printed format’. The electronic version (EPG) has been around since early 1980s in North America. As per Wiki, Western Europe still took some time to adopt to the EPG (early 2000). Not much has changed in the EPG over all these years. It still is the matrix, rows full of program names mapped against time of the day and day of week.

So, what does the TV guide do for the consumer? What is the job done?

To take a step back and think – what problem does the TV guide solve?

“It helps viewers make choices. Which program or movie should I watch next or even watch later in the evening – that’s what the TV guide tells me”

TV guides in all these years have presented viewers with a list of programs. While the viewer is watching a TV show, at the end of it he opens this one application, hunts around for the next show he wants to watch on the same or other channel – and Zap! There he goes, switches to the next program with his pop-corn! With all the clunky interfaces and the evolution of catch-up-TV services, some operators took a step further – they let viewers ‘go back in time’ on this TV guide. Viewers could now discover and play back previous missed episodes from this interface.

What are the alternatives today?

A lot of debate and discussion of course focusses around the emergence of OTT content consumption vs. linear TV viewing experience. A report from Juniper Research suggests that subscriptions from ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) TV providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will generate $31.6 billion by 2019, up from just under $8 billion in 2014. How do these services present their content to viewers? Recommendations – is one of the primary means to achieving this. To draw an analogy, remember when buying books (or any items) on the Amazon website, you are prompted “You bought this, so you might like that..” … a cool way of understanding your preferences, mapping it with the inventory on offer and creating a opportunity to up-sell goods and get a larger share of the wallet.

A similar mechanism exists in the content space, albeit with the objective of ‘keeping you entertained with stuff you want to watch’! And that is called Recommendations. So, while the scope of content is different (it is on-demand content) the job being done is the same – helping the viewer make a choice.

What should the Next-Gen TV Guide look like?

During this conference, Brenda O’Connell from Twitter opened her presentation with a bold statement – ‘The EPG experience is broken today’. Taking a user away from his current viewing, making him navigate through a myriad of program names, hoping he would select the content ‘almost’ right for him, reading more about it on the screen and if all looks good, lo behold he switches channels to actually start watching. Can nothing be done to throw this experience out of the window and look for a new way of getting the job done?

To steal a phrase from yet another speaker at this panel discussion, Fabian Birgfeld, the next generation TV guide should give a ‘Cinematic Integrated Experience’. Rather than the make the user open this one application to see a grid of program names and time, the next generation experience on TV guide can be derived from this ‘recommendation experience’. (See a beautiful illustration at starting from timestamp: 18m16s)

Right before the end of a program, an end-screen notification pop-up indicating a ‘personalized and recommended’ program coming up on any channel. While a viewer is presented this choice, it can be reinforced with ‘why this is best for you’? Using genre and semantic based keywords can convince a viewer on the choice of program he is about to make. Overlaid recommendations and program information will enrich the viewer experience making it easy for him to flow through content. It could extend to mood based recommendations and even event based choices localized and personalized.

In all this scenario, the second screen device also can play a significant role. Multi-user login is still a tough nut to crack in the TV space. Proximity detection enabling viewer identification can help figure who is sitting on the couch in front thereby helping the cause of personalization.

What are the challenges in achieving this?

  • Broadcasters love their real-estate. Content rolled out by some broadcasters has a ‘watch next’ overlaid on the video feed. Additionally brands pay for the advertisements. Neither broadcasters, not those brands would like an atrocious overlay on top of their content. More so if it results in taking the viewer away from the channel there will certainly be some displeasure. After all ‘eye balls’ is what the media industry cares about. Having said that, broadcasters will be able to benefit from viewer data and make better decisions around content and advertisement. They will be able to leverage this towards monetising better targeted advertising.
  • Will they ‘All’ participate? In addition to this Pay TV bundle, will the OTT players play along. The business model of OTT providers has started to depend on original content and latest content release window (from tVoD providers). Rightfully so, they favour their walled-gardens. It helps them better understand consumer needs, thereby helping the investment decision-making process. If these players open up their catalogue interfaces to TV makers and Pay TV operators alike, this content will become a part of the broader mix! Will it loose its premium position? Not necessarily. As they are invested in quality content creation, their content where relevant will be stay afloat over the rest in the recommendations. [Update: June 25, 2016: Netflix opens up catalogue to Android TV Universal Search:]
  • The consumer question ‘Will my TV give me this experience or will it be the set-top-box?’  Amongst this install base, different geographic markets have different adoption ratios of linear viewing through the TV vs through a set-top-box. Only the former part of this install base will use the TV guide on the TV. Is this base big enough for TV makers to spend money on? Does the meta-data and the powerful recommendations algorithm behind it have sufficient business value to the TV maker? On the other hand, using the set-top-box keeps the experience under the control of the operator – the gatekeeper to the viewer’s linear content.

A transition in the user experience paradigm from this grid view to an integrated experience will create a leanback viewing experience. Certainly more than one player in the value chain will have to work together to bring this dream to a reality.  For the viewer the new ‘personalized’ TV guide will be more of a personal TV assistant than a mere two-dimensional application.

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