Monday, 5 June 2017

Justification for the EPG grid.

No-one watches linear TV any more, so why have an EPG? This post looks at why they still exist in an on-demand world.

I hate Electronic Programme Guides. The spreadsheet representation is more suited to accountants than to people wanting to be entertained. Understanding one requires too much learning to be useful. You have to know which channel your programme is on, and when, before you can find it. And if you don’t know what you want to watch, you have to scroll around aimlessly until happy coincidence highlights a programme of interest. So I’m starting a campaign to get rid of them. Except I might be wrong.

The EPG only exists because the broadcast schedule exists. So to do away with the former, we need to look more closely at the latter. A recent presentation at the DTG Summit gave me a perspective of why the broadcast schedule is still important.

The assertion made by Adam MacDonald, Director of Sky 1, was that broadcast schedule (and by extension the EPG) gives context and therefore meaning to on-demand content. His analogy was: you only know you’re going off road, if there’s a road in the first place. To illustrate his point, let’s look more closely at how the schedule is influences and is influenced by viewing behaviours for on-demand.

The majority of pre-peak viewing is live. It may well be true that the post-peak viewers are the most valuable, but there’s still a sizeable audience for whom the EPG is the most relevant content discovery point.

Even for the most heavily non-linearly-viewed content on Sky 1, significant numbers still view non-linearly in relation to the schedule. In other words, they will watch the programme on demand, after its transmission date. Is this because the transmission is the expiry of the spoiler embargo? This seems to be the case for reviewers and social media.

There is an emerging content consumption behaviour of the mini binge, especially relevant for content not available in box sets. Viewers wait 3 transmission weeks, store up 3-4 episodes, then watch them all in one go. This too is only made possible by the broadcast schedule.

In acknowledgement of these insights, Sky 1 now markets to the mini binge, and schedules a “gap” on Saturday evenings – because this is peak on-demand viewing time. The schedule shapes behaviour which shapes the schedule.

I’m not convinced by all this. It strikes me that the broadcast schedule is an organisation paradigm that sits very comfortably with the current generation of bill-paying viewers. I’ve lived with schedules and EPGs for so long that I can work around their limitations. I also accept that behaviours like mini binges and spoiler-free water cooler moments only exist because of the context of the schedule. However, I think these behaviours are short-lived, and won’t be the behaviours of the future bill-paying viewer. The schedule isn’t relevant my children.

The EPG is simply the most efficient way of presenting left-to-right schedule information. Nonetheless, a spreadsheet is not the most efficient way of discovering content, nor even making judgement about content. The poster image is still the best signal for a content watching judgement.

So let’s do away with the broadcast schedule, and the EPG – but perhaps after I’ve set my series recordings.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Content concepts.

My favourite part of attending a conference is learning all the new buzzwords. These are from last week’s DTG Summit.

Every industry has its own peculiar patois, but it seems to me that the content industry tries harder than most to come up with pithy phrases. At first glance, they elicit a reaction of ‘groan – that’s doublespeak nonsense’. But sometimes – only sometimes – a closer examination yields interesting insights. Let me try some out on you.

Content Infidelity: In 2013 Netflix released a survey that said, “51% of those in a relationship would “cheat” on their spouse/partner/significant other by streaming a TV program(s) they agreed to watch together before their partner had a chance to watch it”. (Its survey of 2017 went on to find that 14% think content infidelity is worse than having an actual affair.)  
So what? Such a high percentage tells me that watching TV is a fiercely social activity, and still a centrepiece in our everyday lives. It feels comforting work in such an impactful industry.

Work, Sleep, Stream: A survey by Rovi in 2015 found that watching TV was the third biggest daily time commitment, after working then sleeping. (Actually, it found that there was some overlap between working and watching TV, but that’s a different point entirely.) 
So what? TV is so important that some chose to prioritise it over all other activities. TV continues to take the lion share of leisure attention and therefore spend.

Show Dumping: This is a relatively new phenomenon, identified by Tivo in 2016 where viewers disengage from a show because it becomes too difficult to watch. This might be because it moves from one streaming service to another, especially if it goes from free (iPlayer) to subscription (Netflix). Or if it goes from a subscription you already have to one that you don’t. 
So what? It seems that content isn’t king, but economics is.

Path to Pay: As we’ve seen, the only growth area in Pay TV is in low-spending households. These are the ones who normally enjoy Freeview or iPlayer or shows recorded on their hard drive. All broadcasters are looking for a way to encourage these free viewers to become pay viewers. 
So what? The innovation in the UK market over the last year has been in this low ARPU end of the market, and focus will continue to be here. Existing products like Now TV, Amazon Fire TV, Netflix, Freeview Play will get better. But as a direct consequence, products like Sky Q and Virgin Media VIP will become more expensive and irrelevant. This is all good news for the viewer.

Skinny Bundles: Presumably due to the restrictive rights negotiated by Google, YouTube TV is launching with a mere 42 channels. This looks waifishly skinny when compared with the “over 260 channels” as boasted by the likes of Comcast
So what? These 42 channels are the ones that viewers actually want to watch. In other words, 85% of Comcast’s channel line-up is of no interest to a viewer. It should be acknowledged that there are significant issues with the rights that Google negotiated, particularly the reluctance of broadcasters to relinquish control over which ads to show to Google. Nevertheless, to misquote Andrew Neil's keynote, I hope we’ll look back on 2017 as the last time we got away with forcing viewers to buy 85% more stuff than they actually wanted.

Net Neutrality by Necessity: The growth of online video continues to be explosive. ISPs are struggling to maintain the infrastructure investment to keep up. But just as it’s ludicrous to expect to pay different electricity bills for usage by a laptop versus usage by a microwave, it’s equally illogical to have anything other than net neutrality.
So what? Viewers are moving away from delivery of TV through aerials on the roof, to delivery of TV through home Wi-Fi. The industry is having to welcome a new entrant to the TV value chain: the Internet Service Provider. The ISP has a key role in providing the broadband connectivity into the home, and usually the Wi-Fi router that flings the Internet around the home. As they did with the owners of the DTT transmitter network or satellite fleets, it’s in the broadcaster’s interest to strike a commercial relationship with ISPs. However, it’s not in the ISP’s interest to strike individual commercial relationships, not least in Europe due to legal obligations not to discriminate service based on content. ISPs will realise this once they accept that they’re nothing more or less than a fundamental utility. Which will leave broadcasters floundering to find their place in the new value chain. 

Prop-Up Programming: Even in this age of multi-channel multi-format multi-delivery fragmented viewing, some programmes still get over 10M viewers. These hugely popular programmes prop up the channel, the brand, the technology platform, and the broadcaster as a whole. However, these programmes are becoming fewer. 
So what?  If ITV didn’t have to serve 10.4M viewers with Britain’s Got Talent simultaneously, they could abandon the expensive DTT and DSAT carriage agreements, and deliver directly over the Internet. However, if ITV didn’t have any programming that reached 10.4M viewers simultaneously, it wouldn’t command the same ad revenue, and wouldn’t be able to afford to deliver its services. A neat little circle that props up the status quo, but looks more fragile as the number of prop-up programmes decrease.

(Full disclosure – I made the last two up myself and added them to the list, hoping that they’ll gain credibility by association.)

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Thoughts from the DTG Summit 2017.

The broadcast industry is catching up with the world around it. It’d better hurry up.

The DTG Summit is one of the smaller conferences, catering to the UK broadcast community. Even though it’s small, there’s a good mix of broadcasters, technology vendors, service providers, and regulators, which usually makes for a good spread of perspectives. This year, they all seemed to converge on a couple of ideas: 1) IP is a good thing; 2) Netflix and Amazon have a lot of money.

A climate of fear
However, both of theses ideas were expressed in a way that fed a pervading sense of fear. Fear of being forced to spend money on newer shinier kit, fear of other entrants taking market share, fear of losing revenue, fear of the world moving on whilst broadcasters ossify.

These are all real, legitimate fears, founded in established market trends. For example, the only revenue growth in Pay TV appears to be from the lower spending homes. For example, the most popular UK TV content is still free, so there is a large constituency of TV viewers who are happy with not paying  – even if it means missing out on the latest features – so there is a large legacy viewership to keep happy. For example, investment cycles by TV operators is still around 5-7 years, compared with software app cycles of 1-3 months, which makes it very hard to TV technology platforms to keep up with best in class software.

Disruptive effect of IP everywhere
Broadcasters have been late to implementing IP end-to-end because they’ve been trapped in their decade-long investment cycles. Other sectors like banking have come to grips transforming their infrastructure to highly available, highly secure, highly flexible, all the while reducing operational costs – through implementing IP everywhere. (The banking sector has spent a huge amount of money to get here, but the point is, they are already reaping rewards.) The broadcast sector is just starting to link its digital islands, and is finding it very hard and expensive to do so.

Whilst IP everywhere will undoubtedly lead to improved operational efficiencies, that isn’t the disruption being caused in its wake. The disruption is a consequence of the cost. The irony for me is exactly what the broadcast industry finds expensive and hard, has actually made it cheaper and easier for new entrants to come into the marketplace. The barrier to entry into the broadcast space has been lowered because: you don’t need as much scale to be economic since the incremental cost of IP delivery is negligible; new opportunities can be trialled without needing to underwrite/write off large development costs; geographic location is truly irrelevant opening new opportunities for resource arbitrage.

To put it another way, newbies can find value with IP everywhere in not only doing new things, but also doing existing things because they can do it cheaper than broadcasters. The solution for broadcasters appears simple to me: get on the IP everywhere train as soon as possible to remove the cost disparity and to find new value opportunities. It’ll cost a lot to implement, but it’ll cost a lot more to go slowly out of business.

Disruptive effect of new money
Despite a pervading air of fear, the conference never fails to self-congratulatory over UK’s talent in media and entertainment. UK broadcasters may not have the wherewithal to spend as much as Netflix on new content, but at least every villain is British. UK broadcast punches above its weight.

My problem with this contention is the aspiration to spend as much as Netflix. For a start, Netflix and Amazon together now spend more on creating content than all the Hollywood studios combined (around $12B). We don’t feel the need for BBC or ITV to be as big as Disney, so perhaps we shouldn’t feel threatened by Amazon.  My other problem is the implicit correlation between spending money and creating quality programming. Whilst it’s true that the more money you spend, the bigger the sets you can build. It’s also true that there is plenty of quality TV to be found in niche broadcasters like Channel 4.

For me, the disruption isn’t the fact that there are new entrants with deep pockets. The disruption is the fact that these new entrants have ability to move the market. For example, Netflix is pioneering the use of data and analytics in its delivery of content. For example, Amazon has implemented voice search successfully for TV (and I think this will be the interaction mechanism of choice with TV viewers within a couple of years). For example, Netflix launches entire series in one go, a practice that is now common amongst all providers.

It’s also a fallacy that these new entrants have a money-no-object approach to new technology. They have deep pockets because they’re successful, not because they’re profligate. It’s this success that we should emulate, not the spending.

A future of opportunity
These musings may sound gloomy, but I’m actually very upbeat. I came away from the conference with a renewed sense of confidence. There’s a key advantage to being a second entrant into a market – others have created that market space for you. There’s already a clarity of vision, and someone else has shown all the steps (and missteps) to getting there.

Broadcasters can learn from the many lessons from other industries, and from first movers. Learning these lessons should reduce the inevitable cost and effort required to re-platform an entire industry onto IP everywhere. Learning these lessons will help to create industry-leading content without industry-leading spend. The opportunity is to learn from the pioneers and to do it better.