Future user guidance in television and online video (2)

In the first part of this article, I summed up how television and online video audiences choose what to watch. This process is important for Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs). In these concluding, remarks, I will cast a glance at how EPGs work today and what the future may have in stock for them. I came up with these thoughts on the occasion of taking part in a panel entitled, User Guidance – How to find the Content, at Cologne’s Medienforum Northrhine-Westphalia earlier this month.

A very prominent example of current EPG-guided devices is TiVo, the most popular digital video recorder in the United States. TiVo helps you filter and record the programmes you like best out of broadcast TV and video-on-demand services. You can make it automatically record all new episodes of your favourite show or all movies with your favourite actor in them, irrespective of the time and place of transmission. So when you feel like watching TV, you switch on your TiVo rather than your TV set, because in all likelihood, TiVo has already recorded a number of interesting shows.

With television, you do not always know if something good when you switch on.

Future personal video recorders will be even more comfortable. They will learn from your actual viewing behaviour rather than from your intentional manual input, compare your personal patterns to the usage patterns of similar persons, and direct you automatically to programmes fitting your profile. Online shops already use such techniques as a matter of routine.

This entire functionality relies on the availability of metadata, i.e., machine-readable descriptions of content and the relations between content items. Today, most metadata is generated manually or through the use of statistics. For an end device such as a video recorder to process statistics, metadata must be fed into it. TiVo, for example, offers its own metadata feed as a commercial subscription service.

But at some point, the machines will even be able to analyse audiovisual content by themselves. They will recognise people, storylines, genres, and styles, and generate their own metadata (see also the CASAM research project, in which the EJC takes part). Currently, a fan of a hospital series such as Grey’s Anatomy might get recommendations for other hospital series simply based on the fact that the term “hospital” comes up in all their metadata. But a Grey’s Anatomy afficionado might not necessary like just any other medical drama with different protagonists and an entirely different production value. Using direct content analysis, however, this user would get suggestions to watch other programmes that psychologically or mood-wise match Grey’s, even if they belong to the crime or mystery genres.

This would be very convenient, but at the same time put you at the risk of going into a kind of loop, watching only programmes of the same kind all the time. That is why external input is needed in any case – be it from other users and/or professional editors and experts.

Today, aside from social contacts, primetime has this function: Everybody is sitting in front of their TVs at the same time. And accordingly, broadcasters schedule the programmes they deem the most important or the most popular within this time frame. By switching channels, everybody can get in touch with a variety of such programmes.

In the future, primetime placement will be substituted with EPG placement. Only programmes easily findable or prominently featured there will manage to catch your attention.

As a consequence, we must no longer leave the field of Electronic Programme Guides – or of any form of user guidance, for that matter – to the consumer electronics industry, to the boadcasters, or to cable and satellite companies with their respective particular interests. On the contrary. User guidance in audiovisual media is a genuine task of the free press. It depends on variety, choice, and expert judgements.

To achieve this, user guidance needs technical and editorial standards that guarantee full interoperability, open access, affordable devices, and data privacy. We must make sure that rather than a competition of user guidance platforms (which are always proprietary), there develops a competition of diverse platform-independent user guidance services. Some of these will be professional and commercial, while others will be user-generated or crowd-sourced.

Mandatory rules for the impartial placement of TV channels in EPGs, as some media regulation authorities have imposed on the market, are only the first step towards this end. The order of the day is to proactively encourage and support the emergence of a variety of intelligent, independent EPG solutions – even if that is against the vested interests of some or even most of the incumbent entertainment industry players.

Please see also this related post by Ethan Zuckerman.