“Coming up next…” has been a part of the television viewing experience since the beginning. In the form of a billboard, an audio queue, a video teaser, or a graphic crawl along the bottom of the screen, the on-air promo or tune-in promotion has been a staple of the linear television watching experience for as long as any of us can remember. But network promotion, promotion budgets, and the considerable staffs that administer them, may be in for a big change.
The concept of what-will-appear-next-on-this-screen, as determined by the sole discretion of a network programmer somewhere in New York or Los Angeles, is quickly fading to black. What is on next is whatever is available on-demand, on the device you have in hand: whatever you, the viewer, wants to watch. A recent survey found that 98% of viewers now watch time-shifted programming. The number of people watching videos on PCs, tablets and cell phones in 2011 stood at 792 million, and by 2016 that number will roughly double to 1.5 billion users. Look around your seat on the airplane and everywhere PCs, tablets and smartphones in “airplane mode” are lit up with movies, TV shows, and TED presentations.
Excellent. More people are consuming more video in more places and on more devices. So what’s the problem? The problem is that as television viewing becomes increasingly un-tethered from the television set and unbounded by time, the conventions of linear television delivery are becoming increasingly irrelevant, and current online conventions are not keeping pace. What was once relatively simple -- finding “something to watch”, has become complex, in some cases painful, and worst of all tedious. Consumer awareness, adoption, usage and monetization all suffer.
The current methods of online video selection are stuck on two legacy paradigms:
Search: essentially a holdover from the bricks and mortar library, as now automated on the Web. Search is an information paradigm, not an entertainment paradigm. If you know what you are looking for, search is a useful tool, but people only know what they are looking for about half the time.
Discovery: essentially a holdover from catalogue shopping and the Home Video store. I hope you have a lot of time on your hands to browse through thousands of titles, most of which are of little to no interest.
Search has been an important addition to the viewing selection process but it is limited in scope, and discovery
is no fun at all. With every piece of content treated the same regardless of quality, nothing that you haven’t already heard of stands out.
Seek and Ye May Find
Entertainment content search is either too narrow -- limited to site(s) search only -- or too broad: the whole Web, not limited by category, and therefore too cluttered. Search is only satisfying when you find what you are looking for: something you want to watch. The limitations of search described above can undermine that effort. Companies are making progress in the attempt to solve this by ingesting more and more relevant meta-data in an attempt to broaden search without opening it up to the entire web, but the search results -- a little text, a little thumbnail, and some links -- still suffer from the inadequacies of discovery described below.
The video store model of discovery, browsing along the shelves in the store, was based on scarcity. The store had finite shelf space and only so many copies of the top titles. Choice was limited. The fact that “you came all this way” meant you couldn’t go home empty-handed. If the title you wanted was not available, you had to pick something. And you always overbought in case you did not like the title(s) you ultimately picked. So you were forced to search/browse through the shelves, often ALL the shelves to make sure nothing was overlooked -- picking up the VCR/DVD cases and studying the box art and reading the snippets of promotional copy -- hoping to find titles that looked tolerable. But you wouldn’t find out if you liked it or not until you got home.
Online generally solves the scarcity problem by relieving the limitations of shelf space, but even now, with thousands of titles available, problems still exist:
-- Scrolling through title lists and box art is extremely time-consuming, over-hyped, and uninformative if not often misleading.
-- We still rely on a thumbnail and a haiku-sized description to sell the video.
-- Sampling of the video is not allowed (see the pernicious video pre-roll below).
More lame titles do not represent more good choices. While there is really no reason to watch something bad (or at least for more than a few seconds) anymore, there is still no easy way to tell the good from the bad.
Video Pre-Roll: the Enemy of Discovery
The implementation of video pre-roll online advertising is killing channel surfing: the ability to rapidly skim through a wide variety of options in real time to see if something catches your eye. In the time it takes to sample three online videos, a viewer could have channel-surfed through more than two dozen channels on cable. Waiting while the page loads, the video buffers, and the ad runs, even assuming a good connection, may be tolerable once, maybe twice, but if the first or second video is a miss, we are out of there. We simply don’t have the patience for it. Persistent video pre-roll murders the convenience proposition by impeding discovery and creating an extremely time-consuming and unsatisfying consumer experience. Even the new benefits of search are undermined by video pre-roll. Is this what you were looking for? I don’t know, I have to sit through a pre-roll first to find out.
Imagine if EVERY TIME you changed the channel on your TV, you had to wait while the STB “located” and “contacted” and loaded the channel, and then you had to sit through an entire commercial before you see what’s on that channel? That is effectively what viewers of online “premium” video are forced to do now. Something good needs to precede the pre-roll. Presenting something good is the new role of the television programmer.
This is the kind of challenge that's good to have, driven by the availability of a new and popular technology accelerated by clear consumer demand. The shift in the way video content is sourced and consumed requires fresh thinking from programmers and operators to develop innovative solutions, including a new approach to promoting and merchandizing content. We'll explore several such solutions in an upcoming article.