TV Search and Google – the natural end game

There have been two great articles in the last couple of days, both discussing the future of search and the television. The Times led focussed on the next generation of TiVo boxes that are being tested at the moment, whilst PaidContent focussed on the rumours that Google is working with the Dish Network in the US on a new product. With hundreds of linear channels and thousands of hours of VOD programming no one will deny that your television and search will be a big market in the future –  but what’s the logical conclusion here, and do we like it?

On the SKY platform in the UK there are well over 300 channels available, and though every platform has tried to innovate the EPG is a redundant tool when it comes to program discovery. There is just too much choice for a traditional EPG and remote to effectively search and discover new programming.

The VOD market is even worse – SeeSaw recently launched with a ‘mere’ 3000 hours of content! Everyone states that this is not enough for a commercial service – try and discover something on that service though. Unless SeeSaw markets the content through their editorial highlights, it won’t be found.

Also the VOD market is very fragmented at the moment – SeeSaw, Canvas, iPlayer, SkyPlayer, ITVPlayer, 4OD, Demand5 – and that is just in the UK and just the major broadcasters! How do you know which service to go to, which do you choose?

We then have a new breed of online search services coming through, companies like TVPixie and FindmeTV are both looking to create discovery engines for broadcast – but both are online only at the moment, and without funding you wonder if they can make the leap to compete with the likes of Tivo, Rovi and Google?

So we come back to Google – the case is made above, with so much programming stretching across linear, VOD, online and mobile – a search service that can find you what you want to watch is going to be needed. And who better to provide a cross-platform search service – than Google.

But Google is so much more than a search company these days, and with the HTC they have proved that their not afraid to move into the hardware market. So why Google would just provide the search, why not own the service and provide the STB?

As anyone who has read my blog before knows I am not a fan of the STB and believe that its days are numbered, so let’s jump further down the line – and lets imagine a world where Google starts producing Televisions, running on Android with a Google powered program discovery engine?

Google has the heritage now to achieve this, and it would be in their disruptive nature to go up against the traditional platforms. They have the experience to do hardware partnerships, the experience to with Android to create a OS and the expertise to build a fantastic program search functionality.

And let us not forget YouTube, which is already beginning to show and play long form content, and is no doubt already embedded in a number of the new CE services that will launch this year.

All the pieces are in place for a Google TV service, the complete value chain (let’s not forget they’re pretty good at advertising as well), from beginning to end.

The thought excites me – but from a marketing point of view there is one problem. Google used to be the brand we all loved, it used to be a brand all about freedom, discovery….but as it grows and enters so many parts of our lives I’m beginning to become wary of how much data it holds on me.

It already has all my emails, all my search strings….do I really want it to know that I want to watch Midsummer Murders tonight as well?

IPTV – does anyone need another box?

When I joined the beta test of SeeSaw I also registered with GetSatisfaction so that I could take part in the full beta experience and give my honest feedback on the service. Strangely though I have found that the feedback forum is more compelling than SeeSaw for me at the moment, it is like a live, interactive focus group on what consumers are demanding from future VOD products? And I’m betting it’s leaving everyone at SeeSaw (and no doubt some lurkers from Canvas) scratching their heads.

The question related to how else people who like to access SeeSaw, so this was a loaded question and that needs to be taken in context. The post is by far the most popular on the forum and the answers are quite uniform. PS3, Xbox, Wii and iphone come through again and again – with the majority of people stating one of the consoles plus their iphone.

What I find interesting about this is that no one has mentioned Freeview or any of the established boxes that are available in the market. And whilst the question did not mention the possibility of a SeeSaw box that was not mentioned either. What came across very clearly was that consumers have enough boxes under their television already, and that they want new services to work within those boxes not add to them.

As one member, Alfie, stated: “So really when you look at these responses one thing is brilliantly clear: People don’t want a new platform, and they don’t want to watch TV through a monitor/browser. Unless that browser is through their console. That’s quite a big insight to get for your service, considering your current browser-centric approach.”

SeeSaw have not hidden the fact that part of their strategy is to launch a Freeview/SeeSaw integrated box in the near future, and you can presume that it will be soon as they’ll want to beat Project Canvas to the punch. But Project Canvas is also based around a new box and you wonder if their strategy is already out of date?

Last year I was invited to speak at the IPTV Forum in London, a conference dominated by hardware companies, and I made few friends. I stated there that if you had stock in STB manufactures you should sell as quickly as possible. I haven’t been invited back this year!

With the likes of Samsung, Sony and Philips about to release TV’s with Ethernet and ConnetedTV functionality built in and with services like the excellent Boxee beginning to gain real traction – who would want to launch a new STB into the market now?

Broadcasters and aggregators need to focus on functionality, content and ensuring that their services work with multiple existing devices, rather than building a new device. Let the hardware people build the devices and the content people supply the content.

Way to fail – the launch of Tellylinks

I wrote yesterday about my feelings on the launch of Tellylinks last night on Five in the UK. A new service that due to some high-profile founders had gained a reasonable (if untargetted) press coverage in the UK yesterday. I did have concerns that I discussed here, but nothing could have led me to expect the fail whale that was their high-profile launch night.

You launch on a terrestrial TV channel – and your site crashes, no one can log on! Trouble is, this was just really the final nail in a pretty poor day for the fledgling company.

Twitter – when you see that a company only has 24 followers on launch day when realistically this should have been the main target audience, you know you have problems. No background, the logo in as an avatar (and it didn’t fit so you saw one letter!) and no real strategy in place for gaining users. What should have been one of their main routes for building up WOM was ignored, and their lack of response to questions during the issues was unforgivable.

Site Design – its awful to be honest. I know that design is objective, but it looked very dated, very simple (and not in a good way) and wasnt engaging at all. It looked like it could have been done with a basic website builder, there was no effort to try and establish a brand or give the site any kind of identity.

Creative – The bumper creative was also disappointing and very dated – this slick animation style was much in vogue around a decade ago, but the Kandi nightclubs have really owned it in the UK recently. It got across that you watched a TV program and a list of links came up – but the tag line “you think it, we link it” does not really capture the essence of what the service is. Whilst I was watching Numbers I was thinking, what’s on the other side….

Hosting – your site can’t crash on the first night, period! Whoever was in charge of stress/load testing needs to be lined up against a wall this morning – there really is no excuse for it. Tellylinks are claiming this morning that it was due to the vast demand – hold on, you want me to believe that from sponsorship bumpers on a Five show at 10pm on a Wednesday night generated so much traffic it crashed the site?? Not sure anyone is going to buy that – unless your expectations were so low and your stress/load testing so minimal – that again someone needs to be lined up against the wall.

Response – last night for the majority of the night there was silence from the official twitter feed. Until the classic “anyone fancy some online chess…” ok, they have a sense of humour. But as you can see here there was already a stream of negative WOM forming, they should have jumped straight on this and explained what was going on. I’ve contacted them direct a couple of times for comments/explanations – but not even had an acknowledgment let alone a proper response.

The morning after – the holding site that was there yesterday is now down, and in its place is a simple white background with the following text showing:

Thank you for trying
In light of the unexpected high volume of traffic to during its launch this evening, we would like to apologise to anyone who may have experienced technical difficulties in accessing the service.
We are overwhelmed by the level of viewer response and have already started to scale up our systems to ensure that everyone who logs on to in future will gain the full benefit of the service.

I still believe that what Tellylinks is trying to achieve is a sound concept, the embedding of interactive services into a broadcast stream makes perfect sense and I have no doubt will be achieved within the next year. But the execution here was poor on nearly every level, and the state of the site this morning does not bode well for the future of the venture in my opinion.

The key question for me yesterday has not been answered though – how does the ‘editorial search’ work in practise? When I sit and watch a program how relevant are the links they are serving me? That’s the key – I will go back and try again and if the answers are positive to these questions then perhaps they have a foundation to build on – if not, I think a lot of people will be saying “I’m Out”

Social integration with TV will happen, but it will happen when we have the ability to interact on our television – so it becomes a true part of the viewing experience. With TV widgets already being used by early adopters, and soon to become mainstream – you have to question why Tellylinks did not hold back and invest in technology for the future, instead of using technology from the past.

I said yesterday that what they were trying to achieve could be done with a simple twitter API – and I still stand by that, in fact I think I may well do it to prove the point! I guess if you’re going to fail, do it in style!

Tellylinks can it offer something new?

It’s unfair to judge a product before it has launched, and whilst I’m raising some issues about Tellylinks I’m still going to be tuning in this evening and trying the service out. The full coverage can be seen over at The Guardian if you want the background of all involved, but the below video amply conveys what the service is aiming to do.

My first thoughts were that if Jeff Henry had not been involved this would not have the coverage it seems to be getting. But that was a knee jerk reaction – that they have negotiated with Five to allow for the service to be effectively Beta tested during primetime, means that someone somewhere is impressed.

But talk is cheap and PR inspired lines like “it’s like an app for your television” are doing Henry no favours at all – it’s not, it’s a website I’ll surf on my laptop whilst staring at my TV…nothing like an iphone App. I also have concerns about the minimal information on the site at the moment, no example videos, no twitter streams, no real explanation. The lowly twitter follower figures also leads me to think that marketing the service is not a priority at the moment. Is tonight just a live proof of concept to get the VC’s interested?

The main problem is going to be how they offer something that google/twitter dont already? I know Henry talks about “editorial search”…but that’s just PR talk again. When I type something into google that’s relevant to a program I’m watching….that’s editorial search as well! My wife is a twitter fiend but uses it as a fun devise whilst watching TV, her and her followers share links, jokes, comments about TV programs all the time.  What is Tellylinks going to offer to these people – and why has more not been done to reach out and them to use the service tonight?

Working for a TV station and running their online presence I have a great interest in online properties that try and link up with the TV. I was involved as a consultant with Tioti a couple of years ago, and know the guys at TVPixie well as well. I want sites like these to succeed, and I think that as we move towards converged TV where apps will be able to run, that there is a place in the market for them.

As I said at the start you can’t judge something you have not tried, but apart from some great PR for Henry the signs dont look that great. However I will be watching Five at 10pm this evening and using the service.

Just can’t help thinking that a quick Twitter App, some crowdsourcing could do the same thing for a fraction of the cost!

ITV a premium provider?

The Telegraph recently stated that ITV was looking at moving into the PPV market for its digital channels. I’m assuming this is just lazy journalism and in fact what they meant was that they were considering moving into the ‘pay for’ market rather than the more distinct PPV market. There is no logical reason why ITV would look at the PPV market, but the prospect of them moving into the ‘pay for’ market offers some very interesting possibilities.

Let’s be clear there are three main business models when looking at premium television, by which I mean channels that individuals purchase distinctly rather than just as an extension of a platform package.

PPV – Pay Per View is where a distinct program is purchased. This is normally a film and the conditional access allows people to watch the film for a set period of time. The main distinction is that it is one program; Sky Box Office is perhaps the best example of the PPV in action.

PPN – Pay Per Night is where a channel is purchased for a set period of time, which normally finished around 6am in the morning. This is the corner stone of the Adult channels on all platforms.

Subscription – this is where a monthly fee is paid and the conditional access to the channel is opened until that subscription runs out. Sky Movies, Sky Sports and again the Adult channels all use this model to varying levels of success.

From the above you can see that The Telegraph obviously did not mean PPV (and yet so many other sites copied the obvious error) but it’s worth considering why the PPN option would also not work for a network like ITV.

Scheduling – the way you schedule a PPV/PPN service is very different from a normal linear channel. On a linear channel you have to expect that people will come back on certain days/times to watch specific programs. With a PPN service you can assume that a maximum of 4 purchases will be made in a month, therefore you can repeat your schedule on a much more frequent basis.

Purchase Behaviour – PPV/PPN consumer behaviour is all driven by instinct. There has been a multitude of research undertaken, and it all points to the fact that there are no real ‘appointments to view’ but that if the impulse is there the consumer will surf and make a purchase of the content that best fits their mood. This works well for films and adult, but would fail in a more mainstream and short form environment.

Margins – I can’t talk too much about this to be honest, but the way that premium channels work the margins in a subscription service are much higher than on a PPV/PPN service. The fee’s that are charged for allowing a consumer access to a channel are paid each time access is allowed. So if someone makes 4 PPN purchases in a month, you pay 4 times. If they subscribe, you’ll only be paying once.

However the move of these digital channels to a subscription service is much more interesting and poses many questions and possibilities. With the information still very vague it is hard to know the exact route that the new management team are contemplating, but my guess is that they’ll follow a similar strategy to Sky Movies.

This would entail one of the channels (most likely ITV2) becoming a true premium channel much as HBO is in the US.

They would then add ITV3/ITV4 as make weight channels into the subscription package to justify the price point; my guess is you’re looking at around £7 per month.

There are a couple of key questions that this raises though:

–          How would they position the 3 channels to highlight true differentiation?

–          What content would they invest in to persuade the UK consumer to change buying habits?

–          With no Conditional  Access on Freeview, how would ITV make a premium service pay on the UK’s biggest platform? TopUpTV at present doesn’t really have the penetration, but could the addition of these channels drive the take up of that service?

–          How would this play with Canvas and their VOD ambitions? It would lead towards the assumption that ITV intend to go it alone in the new VOD market.

–          Would they work through the platforms, or own the consumer relationship (thus offering much better multi-platform opportunities) by working with external companies like MGT?

It’s a bold as brass idea – if ITV could become the UK equivalent of HBO, move away from advertising reliance and provide a true multi-platform experience through one billing mechanism…..Crozier could well reinvent a media giant.

SeeSaw – up and down!

Seesaw is Hulu lite, the minimalist design, focus on content and even the partner strategy –throughout there are lovely elements, but these are overshadowed by a feeling that the site lacks real personality or the values that will be needed to establish a brand. The lack of social functionality, the minimal approach to metadata, some poor copy writing and labelling and an insipid design – all lean towards a site that is a home for other brands rather than a strong brand in itself.

The content is good and I found plenty that I will be watching already. But the key will be how they build on this over the coming months and how they build that into the navigation. One of the perennial VOD dilemmas is how you structure your content, the answer is genre, but has SeeSaw gone down the channel brand route already?

The advertising works well, double pre-rolls and sponsorship show their commercial intentions from the start, technically the service is solid if unremarkable (though a lack of variable bitrates is odd), the UI is strong and intuitive, there are some really nice touches hidden away (specific VO for SeeSaw on the 4OD page by the same VO artist as the linear channel) and the promise of a premium service in coming months bodes well if they can secure the studio deals.

With Canvas and Hulu preparing for launch, and each of the major channels having a huge audience to drive to their own services – is the UK market big enough for an independent aggregator? The answer lies in their positioning strategy and their ability to execute that strategy. They’ll lose out on brand, so they must focus on establishing a strong and distinct position in the market. Buses, billboards and banners will not achieve that; they need to focus on strong partnerships that can bring multiple benefits including content and traffic.

SeeSaw has left me in two minds, the core of the service has impressed me but this feels more like a demo of the video capability rather than a fully functioning consumer site. I was probably one of the first Beta users in, so there is plenty of time for the diamond to be polished, and like the iPad I may not need it, but for some reason I really want it to work.

If Joost taught one thing it is that content is key to these services, with BBC Worldwide, Channel 4 and Five as launch partners you can’t fault the starting pedigree.