The cable industry’s “TV Anywhere” strategy is much in the news this month, as a response to the rapid adoption by consumers of sites and applications such as Hulu and Boxee. The cable industry is loath to make the mistake the record companies did, which was to misinterpret consumer downloading of music as a desire to steal content instead of simply a desire to have a more useful form factor for their music. Indeed, iTunes emphatically showed the market that consumers are quite willing to pay to have their music, whether in the form of the billions of dollars in hardware they purchase annually (I think there are now a dozen ipod’s in my household) or the download fees iTunes charges with a simple one-click method.
The current state of internet television is one of frustration. Hulu’s growth is in direct proportion to this frustration, and the cable companies and cable networks need to react with a product that meets consumer needs.
TV Anywhere attempts to do just that. Much of the commentary around TV Anywhere are rants about having to pay the cable company for programming online, and risks that the web becomes “channelized” rather than open. ESPN360 is another example of TV Anywhere, which defies the common wisdom that content should be ad-supported and “free,” or that the content providers should rush to have direct relationships with consumers. These approaches miss two fundamental realities. First, not all content can be supported through ads. Premium producers like HBO couldn’t support their business with ads, in that there continues to be relentless downward pressure on ad prices as inventory expands across traditional, mobile and web platforms. Second, it ignores the fact that delivery of the content requires massive infrastructure, primarily in the form of the physical plant of broadband ISPs. If they don’t have a financial incentive to continue to build out their infrastructure, then innovation and deployment will stall.
The challenge, however, is that the real opportunity to drive additional consumption and to create perceived value for the consumer isn’t being addressed. Consumers’ negative reaction to TVAnywhere is primarily that they fear it is a path for the cable companies to charge incremental fees in the future (it is) without an understanding of the incremental value.
On the other hand , the current path of TVAnywhere and IPTV in general poses some risks to the content producers. In the current linear world, a cable channel owns a defined piece of real estate on the cable system “Channel XYZ.” The ability to cross promote other shows, the network and related properties is a powerful aspect of having control over this “linear” piece of real estate. Indeed, this was the justification that Lifetime used recently for paying a 40% premium for Project Runway. If Project Runway can attract a major audience segment, it can be a springboard for success for other Lifetime shows and indeed the whole network. However, IPTV and TVAnywhere pose a real risk to this reliable strategy. Internet television explodes the traditional “linear” real estate into atomic elements in a non-linear experience. As a result, the cross promotion effects of a hit show are substantially undermined. At the same time, this “infinite” shelf space creates frustration for the consumer, as finding relevant content moves from reviewing a linear program guide to understanding non-intuitive and sometimes arbitrary menu structures. This is not unlike the early days of the web. Remember Yahoo or the Open Directory Project’s attempts to neatly classify every website?
In the new world of TVAnywhere, the burden on the cable channels and content producers in general means the mindset needs to shift from that of “programmers” in the traditional TV sense to that of “merchandisers” of content. This means that the content needs to be wrapped with features that will help the end user more deeply experience the content. This would include some of the following:
- Improved search: Not only search across a video catalog, but also search within a video (characters, dialogues, faces, products) and search for related content (profiles, blogs, fansites, etc)
- Show buzz: Mining the web for tweets, Facebook posts, blog comments, etc.
- Content mashups: Allowing viewers to clip, share, comment within, and generally “mashup” the show content as a viral catalyst.
Search in particular becomes an important “tether,” that can connect an atomic piece of content to a large context. A well formed stored-search associated with a particular episode allows all related content to be delivered to the end user dynamically and contextually. This content “merchandising” will convey the added value that interactivity delivers and web users expect. This in turn enhances the perceived value and creates new revenue streams into the future for the content owners.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.