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When Content Discovery Discovers Us

June 1, 2011

Content discovery in television has been much in the news now that everyone from Samsung to Google has gotten into the act.  I have a TiVo and simply love the Wish List feature.  I can put in my favorite actors, directors and others and it turns up all of the programs involving them that are airing in the next two weeks.  (Thanks for that Timothy Olyphant movie, by the way.)  With a little more care, I can build a custom keyword search to find, for example, all the cooking shows featuring chocolate cake.

Less rewarding, but not unlikeable, is the TiVo Suggestion feature.  In theory, it uses my ratings of one to three “thumbs up” (a green button on my remote) as well as data analysis of viewing patterns to find additional programming that I might enjoy.  It hasn’t pointed me towards any new shows in fourteen months.  At first I thought perhaps it, too, considered this a lackluster season. But looking back over the two years I’ve owned the TiVo, only three of these Suggestions were eventually added to my Season Passes.  Many of the rest left me scratching my head and wishing that TiVo and I could have an actual conversation: “‘Rules of Engagement’?  Really?  What did I say to make you think that?”

With such obvious room for improvement, I’ve been following the development of Smart TVs and set-top boxes with extreme interest.  Many are now combining the type of preferences and ratings I’ve described with recommendations from other people.  Only two of my friends have exceptional TV taste and they already ping me when necessary, but I can see the appeal of this component.  And of course, most of the search tools now gather entertainment not just from traditional networks and cable stations, but from online and other VOD sources, broadening our options.  With the field of possibilities ever widening, I look forward to the day when the algorithms and reviews can regularly help me uncover more programs I really enjoy.  Couch time is precious.

A number of manufacturers are working on individual logins so that each member of the household can have his/her viewing behavior tracked separately.  They emphasize this is so that they can continue to customize our “favorites”.  However, the software will also be gathering data to feed to advertisers hoping to point us towards more potentially relevant purchases.  A recent Videonet Report  contains mock ups of many of the ways in which marketing might be knitted into the UI experience including banners, interactive content and codes that can be sent by SMS to receive promotional items. Watch the “Harry Potter” marathon this weekend.  Oh, and consider this broom and mop in one.  (Click here to read the report:http://viewer.zmags.com/publication/11eb0b66#/11eb0b66/24)

As excited as I am about the progress made, the increased flow of targeted commercials makes me uneasy.  Last post, I discussed my unhappiness with jarring instances of product placement.  Additionally, I already go a bit bonkers when a program I’m watching is “interrupted” by an animated promo for an upcoming event on the same channel.  It’s like being on a date with someone who urges you to search Match.Com for a better boyfriend before you order your main course.  So far, my TiVo only displays an innocuous easy-to-ignore bar when I pause playback, but surely this is the equivalent of a caveman’s tool compared with what’s in our future.  The theory is that if the offering is suitably creative and enticing, viewers will go deeper.  It’s only common sense to realize that this will continually up the game for the next advertiser.  Soon I suspect we’ll be swimming in multimedia banner ads containing 3-D dancing beer cans with Betty White and puppies set to Vampire Weekend music.  And the line between merchandising and entertainment will have gotten just a little thinner.

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