Future user guidance in television and online video (1)

At this year’s Medienforum Northrhine-Westphalia, an annual German media politics gathering, I was invited to join a panel on “User Guidance – How to find the Content”. The topic at hand for the 9-11 June conference: Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs) for television and online video. Here’s a digest of the position I took on the podium in Cologne:

For the last few years, printed TV guides have been continuously dropping in circulation. This is not surprising, as the choice of programmes has become too extensive to be represented on paper and still remain user friendly. You can not help but getting either lost or frustrated when trying to sift through the listings of a hundred channels in order to find your favourite show.

On the other hand, printed TV guides have never really delivered very much actual direction to the general audience. Most decisions on what to watch are taken on the spur of the moment: Grab your remote, switch around for a little while, and then settle for one programme or another.

However, this seemingly spontaneous process is influenced by many external factors:

  • Your relevant set: You look first at the usual suspects, i.e., the most-watched and most-established channels and those which have previously delivered programming you like;
  • Your social contacts: If a friend or colleague has told you about a programme or you if want to be up to date for tomorrow’s water cooler chat, you tend to choose accordingly;
  • On-air promotion and advertising: Maybe you have happened to see a promotion trailer or noticed an advert that piqued your interest and has lodged in your memory;
  • Last and, indeed, least: printed TV guides and recommendations in the newspaper: You actually looked through the listings or read an article in the newspaper and decided on a specific programme.

The general rule is that the less time that passes between when people come into contact with a pointer toward a certain programme and the actual time of broadcast (or usage), the more likely the programme will be viewed. This is why TV stations increase the frequency of promotion trailers towards the time of transmission and always place special teasers to tell the audience what comes next.

The combination of such audience behaviour and ever-increasingly obsolete printed TV guides calls for new solutions in user guidance. You might ask why, since statistics show that people spend more and more time in front of either their TV sets or their computers consuming moving images. This fact seems to indicate that they obviously do not have many difficulties finding something to watch.

And yet: It is the “something” that bothers me, since it often translates into “anything”. A great choice of programmes and channels increases the likelihood that there may be a lot on offer that people might really enjoy – but they never even learn that it exists. And this issue has two dimensions:

  • Frustrated personal preferences: Instead of unenthusiastically watching a more or less random programme you found by chance, you might as well watch something you really like – if you only knew that it was currently running on some arcane channel you never noticed before;
  • Public and personal value: The whole concept of the public sphere depends on people using different types of content and being open for new and unaccustomed ideas. Therefore, you must be given the opportunity to stumble on programmes you did not know you liked or programmes that benefit you – even if you were not able to anticipate such added value on your own.

Consequently, what we need is a diversity of impartial EPGs out of which consumers can choose freely and without technological difficulties, and a sensible combination of machine-generated automatic recommendations and human editorial input.

In the second part of this article, I will look at how this works.