Connected TV: the future of content discovery

Broadcasters have always been the key marketing engines of TV content, defining the programme choices we make and dictating the schedule by which we watch them. Connected TV begins to challenge these traditions, placing greater emphasis on programme rather than channel brands and opening the door for software players to take a more sophisticated data-driven approach to marketing and personalisation. The mechanisms by which consumers discover content is changing.

TV channels have been built off the back of our individual content preferences, associating channel brands with particular consumer interests, demographics and behaviours. Some of the more established broadcasters have taken this one step further by becoming commissioners in their own right, funding content production and getting involved in the creative process, thereby securing exclusive access to the premiere showing.

Over the past few years, as TV has shifted to multichannel and viewing has fragmented across a broader range of platforms and time shifts, channel brands have in some cases given way to more powerful and more recognisable programme brands (e.g. XFactor, Britain’s Got Talent). Where in the old world we might turn on channel 3 and let the ITV scheduler entertain us for an evening, today we often find ourselves skimming through EPG listings looking for a specific programme we want to watch.

As the market evolves in a connected TV world, it is widely anticipated that these individual programme brands will become more significant, with dramas and live event shows in particular beginning to replicate the movie model, where individual programmes and series receive a heavy dose of the broadcaster’s marketing budget (e.g. Sky’s promotion of Game of Thrones).

The corresponding effect on viewing has been to skew mass audiences towards a smaller number of blockbuster hit shows. The tail and the number of shows in it remains, but the middle tier has been squeezed as the focus of attention concentrates around a broadcaster’s top 5 or 10 shows.

One of the most important aspects of the shift to connected TV is recognising how content, both professional long form programming and app-based interactive content gets marketed to us.

Broadcasters have to this day adopted an editorial role in informing us of what’s on now and next, and what we have to look forward to later in the week. Trailers throughout the month of March on Sky1 for Keifer Sutherland’s new US drama, Touch was enough to get me setting the PVR to Series Link. But in a linear environment, while the broadcasters are experts at editorial curation, they are inherently limited by the number of channels they have at their disposal and the choices they can offer me. At the end of an episode of Homeland on Channel 4, the scheduler can either try to keep me on the channel, or send me to E4 or More4. And if I don’t like any of those choices, my only option is to move away from the broadcaster.

In a connected TV world the range of options available to me are potentially infinite. The scheduler is no longer restricted by Channel 4’s three broadcast channels; they can send me to any programme I might have missed on 4oD, archive content from Channel 4’s library or a new range of content services delivered via IP channels, apps and second screens.

Offering a much wider range of programme options through a purely editorial model presents a challenge. The art of scheduling and programme marketing on linear TV has been perfected in an environment where the broadcaster has a finite number of shows and channels to work with, and based on this limited library can identify the potential blockbusters. It becomes very difficult to present a much broader range of programme choices through the same mechanisms used today. In short, the editorial model speaks to a world where the breadth of content choices remains relatively unchanged, and while connectivity may bring greater interactivity and second screen contextual experiences, our interests are focused on long form professional broadcast programming and concentrated around a limited number of hit shows.

New entrants in to the connected TV environment, particularly Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook are looking to combine this editorial art with some analytical science. By tracking user behaviour and recording information about their demographic profile, location and interests, it is possible to build complex recommendation engines where individuals receive their own tailored set of programme options to tune in to next. And because it can present a much broader range of options than a purely editorial model, analytics starts to open up the long tail, including the archive, short form and branded content. In this environment, the TV can begin to entertain discrete individual interests. This analytical approach to content discovery is one that the operating system players (Apple, Google and Microsoft) will feel confident they can deliver in a far more seamless and ergonomic manner than the traditional TV platforms.

There are broadly two types of “recommendation”:  behavioural, which tracks an individual’s usage history and the action of others, and social, which links to Facebook, Google+ and other social networks to identify programmes that my friends have watched. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook would argue that the scale of their analytical resource, both behavioural and social will always be superior and therefore deliver a better consumer experience.

In an environment where content curation is more complex and content interests more bespoke, the user interface (UI) will become increasingly important at helping consumers navigate the choices they have available to them; a keen skillset of the OS players. In short, the UI begins to play an important role in the marketing of TV content. Instead of being entertained by ITV or Channel 4 for an evening, is there a scenario where our entertainer is in fact Google or Apple or even Facebook driven off the recommendations of our friends?

For the broadcasters, this presents a puzzling scenario where their ability to market content and craft an entertainment experience is eroded by more advanced functionality.

This will not affect all broadcasters equally. I would argue that those who choose to invest in commissioning content and drive consumers to live event shows such as XFactor, or play-along interactive shows like Million Pound Drop, will retain a strong position in the market by driving viewers to “live”. Commissioners will also have a valuable bargaining chip when challenged by the operating system players because they own the content, and more importantly, the rights to the premiere showing.

But for those who are unable to build vast commissioning budgets or drive consumers towards live shows, the challenge is very real. It has been suggested to me that one response would be for each broadcaster to develop its own analytics and recommendation engine to compete with the usability of the operating system players. But for smaller broadcasters who have limited viewing share, their understanding of individual consumer preferences will inevitably be inferior to those of the global giants of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook who can aggregate data from across a broader spectrum of usage.

So what does the future of content discovery hold?

One view of the future sees the broadcasters relegated to a fulfilment role, financing and serving up content to the consumer. In this world, the marketing and curation function is performed by the platform/UI, and there are greater opportunities for producers and rights owners to go direct.

But there is another view of the world where a highly fragmented content market sees consumers exercise a “flight to quality”. Consumers congregate around a small number of recognised and trusted brands that help to navigate the content library. THis is similar to the effect seen in the mobile app market.

In reality, we’re likely to see a mixed approach combining the editorial expertise of the broadcasters and the behavioural and social analytics of the operating system players. Today, the broadcasters perceive the OS players as a threat, but can they find a way to work together?

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