Long reads


The personal touch

The shift from linear to on-demand viewing means that there is growing demand to create a more personalised viewing experience, including the ability to search for programmes and receive recommendations from friends. Stuart Thomson investigates.

It is now accepted wisdom that service providers will face the prospect of a shift from linear viewing to on-demand and time-shifted consumption of content over the coming years. Even within the linear viewing world, the fragmentation of audiences between a growing number of multiple and time-shifted channels means that it is increasingly difficult for people to identify and find content they want to watch.
In a world that combines multiple linear channels with a growing availability of on-demand channels and – in the not too distant future – more open access to the web via the TV, the first generation grid-format EPG is unlikely to satisfy the needs of viewers for much longer. Pay-TV operators therefore must face down the threat of competition from over-the-top services and make their own walled-garden services as attractive as possible to retain their subscriber base. Rene Summer, director of government and industry relations, group function sales and marketing at Ericsson points out that service providers face competition not only from legitimate over-the-top services but from pirated content. However, finding and consuming content illegally is time-consuming and involves a certain element of risk to the consumer, which gives the legitimate service provider an opportunity. For Summer, the other key challenges facing service providers are – especially in the world of IPTV – the lack of standardisation of platforms, and the challenge of how to organise and package content in a way that makes business sense to the service provider.

Regarding the organisation of content, the key hurdle to a truly personalised TV universe, says Summer, is the way that rights are managed, which prevents service providers from unbundling and delivering on an à la carte basis. Currently, content providers see little incentive in unbundling what they provide, in the same way that the music industry resisted the move to online consumption because they did not believe that it would compensate for lost revenues through a collapse in sales of albums. Content providers also make the argument that bundling content subsidises niche content that would not otherwise be produced. Summer argues that a move to à la carte could provide a premium on content that is purchased because users would purchase fewer titles but would spend more on them. In the case of public service content, he argues that the case for mandatory unbundling is strong: “We believe that state-financed production should be technologically agnostic.” Currently, the volume of content made available via public and commercial broadcasters’ own online on-demand portals is greater than that made available on catch-up TV services offered by service providers, so viewers have less incentive to use the catch-up service, and less incentive therefore to stay with their service provider.

This gap between pay-TV providers and broadcasters is likely to widen as connected TV services begin to gain momentum (one only has to think of the strength of feeling on various sides in the debate in the UK over Canvas, the UK’s BBC-led connected TV project). It is clear that a shift (though not a universal one) from linear to on-demand consumption is under way. “We believe there will be a general transition from linear to on-demand or time-shifted consumption,” says Matthew Huntingdon, vice-president of solutions marketing at Kudelski-owned interactive TV specialist OpenTV. Huntingdon believes it will be harder for operators to charge for bundled content as people become accustomed to viewing what they want, where and when they want it.

Over the top

The extent to which the service provider should embrace over-the-top delivery – allowing subscribers to access content from the open web or from selected partners on their TVs – as opposed to compete with it is a matter of hot debate. “One business case is driven by premium content as a way to drive premium subscriptions, and the other is providing a conduit to the service experience,” says Kirk Edwardson, marketing director at middleware provider Espial. A number of cable providers are  deploying next-generation devices with TiVo software that can open the TV experience up to third-party service providers. IPTV operators, on the other hand, are looking to “hybrid” delivery, bringing content to their subscribers’ screens from a variety of sources including over-the-air TV and managed and semi-managed internet services.

“IPTV operators want to bring a blended, hybrid experience. More and more people want to open up their interfaces to find other content and bring it in via the EPG and middleware to keep the branded operator experience going rather than have someone leave [the operator’s environment] and use a browser on the internet itself,” says Tom Fuerst, senior director of multimedia solutions marketing at Alcatel Lucent. “It could be a challenge from a service provider’s perspective but it’s about giving the end user what they want and keeping them on the platform.”

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Huntingdon takes a similar view. “Operators need to embrace OTT because [users] want to get that content on the TV,” he says. “If operators don’t provide it, people will find ways around that.” While bringing YouTube or Facebook-based video to the TV might be uncontroversial (provided rights are respected), it becomes problematic if viewers want to see services that compete directly with those provided by the service provider.
While operators are likely to integrate some elements of OTT, enhanced search and recommendation is necessary in the first instance to guide the viewer through what’s already available within the service he or she subscribes to. Given the proliferation of channels and the potential growth of on-demand services, there is a need to deliver better tools to show the subscriber what’s available within the service provider’s own branded-environment or walled garden – and this could itself be more valuable in retaining customers than allowing them to have access to parts of the OTT world.
“What we believe is that the strength of the operators and what they can best leverage is rights and ownership of premium content, which is unique to them,” says Björn Lang, chief technology officer of Nordic IP middleware provider Dreampark. “It’s not something subscribers can easily access any other way.”
How best to integrate traditional channelised pay-TV with on-demand and internet-based elements? “It’s not just about search and recommendation or the way we consume content,” says Pim van der Heijden, head of the office of the chief technology officer, SeaChange. “It’s about how can we present the content that’s available to a particular customer in the most attractive way.” To begin with, he says, service providers will seek to “merge the EPG with the on-demand experience.”

There is clearly still a distinction to be drawn between the TV and other web-connected devices. “We still believe in a lean-back sort of approach and in having the living room as the focus,” says Per Skyttval, Dreampark’s CEO. “Everything should be quite easy, and consumers don’t have to know from where their content is coming. It might be that operators have to make this type of free content available because of competition – if you don’t have YouTube or whatever, then it’s true that subscribers might go to another service provider.”
The extent to which service providers will embrace these features will depend to some extent on their size and lineage. Cable and DTH operators with large installed customer bases using a range of legacy set-tops will be more cautious about tearing up their EPGs and starting over than IPTV providers with only a few thousand customers.

Search

Search is an important part of the content discovery equation, but how to do it in a TV environment is a challenge. Text-based search is difficult via a remote control. Interactive TV specialists have focused on search that makes use of the arrow keys on the remote rather than text.  However, the popularity of smart-phones and tablet devices including the iPad presents another way of doing things.  Consumers want to be able to transfer media to and from such devices. Technology providers are addressing this need. OpenTV, for example, provides Core nX, an adaptive UI that allows operators to deliver a comparable experience to the TV UI on other devices. Initially it is possible that operators will focus on delivering the UI itself and the ability to control the TV (for example by setting recordings and searching for content) via alternative devices rather than ‘place-shift’ their own services. “We don’t believe in focusing on watching TV or content on a mobile device, but on the other hand we think we should use mobile devices for controlling the TV,” says Dreampark’s Skyttval.

Sefy Ariely, vice-president of sales and marketing at Viaccess-owned IP middleware provider Orca Interactive, says that the use of mobile devices to facilitate recommendation is a promising area. By decoupling search and recommendation from the point of consumption of the content itself, use of a widget on a smart-phone can enable users to browse while they are at work or on the move and set recordings remotely for viewing when they get home.
Fuerst says that Alcatel Lucent believes in giving access to aspects of the IPTV service via multiple screens and in using those screens as input devices. The company has developed a back-office product and has done work on the concept of Federated Identity (providing authentication across multiple IT systems) to enable it. “We see one of the challenges being the input device. As people want to do a search for content, using today’s TV remote and putting content onscreen is cumbersome,” he says. “We see lots of things happening on smart-phones and tablets. You can link the smart-phone and tablet to the TV experience in a way that they become the input device.”

Extending the experience across different devices is clearly an area that service providers are interested in. This requires standards to work effectively so that each integration does not need to be done individually. Ericsson’s Summer points to the example of the mobile industry, which has prospered thanks to the standards that enabled phones and other devices to be produced on a network-agnostic basis. “I believe that it’s possible – but hard work – to convince the TV industry that there are gains to be had from open standards,” says Summer. The current fragmentation of the industry is a barrier to global scale, he says.
“Our view is that a web-kit browser makes most sense. If you go with something proprietary it’s hard to keep up with pace of change in the industry,” says Espial’s Edwardson. “You need a middleware platform that allows you to customise – a platform that gives you the ability to extend as new services come up.”

Recommendation

Service providers have an interest in promoting certain content (in order, for example, to meet minimum guarantees that are part of their agreement with suppliers). How best to place promos within the branded EPG or user interface (and how much or little to do it) is something that interested parties are spending a lot of energy working out. “Recommendation should be available across broadcast and on-demand, with the ability to present those recommendations to the end user,” says SeaChange’s van der Heijden. SeaChange has integrated its platform with the specialist provider Aprico’s recommendation engine, and has also worked with US-based recommendation provider Jinni.

With an ever-expanding amount of content available over a larger number of linear and on-demand channels, complemented by DVR services that enable viewers to create their own on-demand experience from the linear universe, the ability to search for content is becoming key, and the sheer volume of content available points to a need for recommendations to be pushed to the viewer to enable them to pick and choose from the body of new and library content flowing into the system. “Because you need a lot more VOD content, simple search is not sufficient,” says Jonathan Beavon, director, segment marketing at NDS. “Users will expect to get recommendations, and we are definitely incorporating recommendation engines for linear TV and on-demand content.”

According to Thomas Dvorak, chief marketing officer of recommendation engine specialist Aprico, service providers are taking a greater interest in recommendation generally. In the first instance, says Dvorak, operators are looking to incorporate search and recommendation features to enable viewers to better navigate the content available within the service provider’s own walled garden. “In the first instance it’s for existing TV services – introducing intelligence go find the [right] content in the vast number of TV stations and in the VOD libraries to make VOD more relevant to the consumer,” says Dvorak. While the next step may well be about how to introduce over-the-top video, operators are likely to be far more cautious about this.

Tom Weiss, the CEO of TV Genius, which is used to generate recommendation by UK hybrid IP/digital-terrestrial TV service Fetch TV as well as by consumer electronics giant Philips’ Net TV service, says that TV platform providers in general have shown much more interest in the technology his company provides, which is also applicable to online services, in the past year. However, it remains the case, he says, that TV viewers are less willing to ‘personalise’ their service than web or mobile device users. “People will use stuff online much more actively, setting up favourites and so on,” says Weiss. “On TV it’s still early days.”
TV Genius uses a combination of proprietary metadata analysis and collaborative filtering to generate recommendations. In order to generate meaningful recommendations based on the latter, it helps to have a degree of scale. “We set up a shared pool of information where people are willing to contribute information anonymously into the pool,” says Weiss. Getting people actually to act on the basis of the content recommended to them is another thing altogether, of course. Integrating recommendation with movie trailers presented to them is key. “People are vastly influenced by trailers and that’s a good way to get recommendations through,” says Weiss. “If you personalise which trailers you show, that will get a much better take-up.”

TV Genius customer Fetch TV, the consumer brand of UK-based IP Vision, has deployed search and recommendation across a service that embraces its own on-demand content, digital-terrestrial free-to-air channels, BSkyB’s online service Sky Player and BBC catch-up service iPlayer. The operator can currently deliver search within the various content silos it provides but is working on developing a universal search function, according to marketing director Peter Cox. “It’s especially important to us because if you have a huge amount of content available it’s important to get to the content you want quickly,” he says.

Weiss’s point about people having a different attitude to personalised TV services than to the same thing on a PC is echoed by Orca Interactive’s Ariely, who points out that people who are happy to divulge all sorts of personal information on the internet will take a very different view of giving the same information to a TV provider. For that reason, he says, most operators want to make sure that subscribers have the choice to opt in or opt out of all these features. For Ariely, one of the key challenges is convincing viewers of the merit of creating – and using – individual log-ins without which true personalisation is extremely difficult. “You can do all sorts of things with ‘implicit profiles’ [based on usage patterns recorded by the set-top box] but for real personalisation you need to know who’s there,” he says. Possible alternatives include a biometric remote control (of a type recently released by Austria-based Ruwido) that takes the fingerprint of the user and uses it to identify him or her. While users may be incentivised more readily to enter their profile details if they want to use a social networking application, this doesn’t mean they will enter the same details if all they want to do is watch the TV. Another possibility, says Ariely, is to introduce individual coloured background ‘skins’ to the EPG in order to remind individual household members that someone’s login details have been entered.

How integrated these elements are within the existing EPG will depend on the operator and the size of its legacy subscriber base.
According to Dvorak, some operators are more aggressive than others about pushing these features. Few people want to see internet-type pop-ups appear on their TV directing them to content they might like based on what they are viewing. However, when viewers take an action to actively search for content, then recommendation can come into its own.
NDS’s Beavon says that new operators often want to incorporate search and recommendation elements in their EPG from the start. However, established pay-TV operators in particular are interested in making certain new features – particularly search and recommendation of content – available via a dedicated part of their user guide rather than fully integrated as a principal feature of the EPG. “They feel they want to do it but are not sure if it’s in the mainstream,” says Beavon.

OpenTV’s Huntingdon suggests that customers could be presented with playlists that are partly generated by recommendation algorithms but with some input from the service provider to push the viewer in the direction that meets its commercial needs.

Social TV

Search and recommendation for the most part is only as good as the metadata available. If the operator is supplying third-party content or services, it is dependent on the quality of the metadata supplied by that third-party.
Metadata is available, of course. Aprico has a partnership with Germany’s Axel Springer to tap into the latter’s vast repository of content metadata. “We can work with low-quality metadata but the better the quality of the descriptors the better the recommendation,” says Dvorak, who adds that technologies under development could analyse and provide metadata for content automatically.  For TV Genius’s Weiss, standardisation of metadata is actually of limited usefulness. “Our experience of metadata is that even when there are standards they are not well-adhered to. If we get metadata in a non-standard format we will just standardise it ourselves,” he says. Other recommendation engine suppliers include ThinkAnalytics and Jinni, both of which are used by OpenTV. The latter is also looking at other ways of generating recommendations including semantic content exploration, which Huntingdon says is a way of crawling unstructured data on the web, enabling links to be made between VOD assets and related web content, generating links that might not be evident in systems that generate recommendations from metadata alone.
And lack of good metadata is not the only problem. Orca Interactive’s Ariely points out that in many cases it is difficult to bring together different elements of particular services – linear, VOD and catch-up – under the umbrella of a single unified search and recommendation system. “In some cases we’re not allowed to make recommendations from one channel package to another,” he says.

Recommendations can be based the profile of the user or the context of the thing being viewed. They can also be generated via collaborative algorithms or via social networking sites. Finally, they can be editorial recommendations provided by the service provider or from an external editorial source. For Dvorak and Aprico, the concept of the “personal channel” is a particularly attractive one, combining different functionality within a channel including the ability to record content based on personal preferences and recommendation. “Rather than searching for something…the personalised channel allows you to indicate your interests and then the engine finds the right content and presents it to you in a highlight form so that you can see what’s relevant,” he says. This concept could, he says, be broadened out to include content from the wider web beyond the service provider’s domain, including the likes of YouTube.

For Dreampark’s Lang, operators are likely to rely on a range of different sources when making recommendations. If they rely only on the usage patterns of their own subscriber base, there is a danger that results could be skewed and their usefulness limited. “The success rate from that will depend on how many subscribers are actively making choices and making these recommendations more valid and accurate,” he says.
Introducing recommendation generated by social networks means integrated the system back-end with the social networking site. “Social networking is a hot topic,” says Dvorak, who believes that service providers will initially look to create communities within their own customer base so as to generate recommendations to content to which they have the rights.

For Orca Interactive’s Ariely, recommendations generated through social networks are likely to prove much more interesting to users than those provided by an anonymous algorithm. “Social recommendations are very powerful and can overshadow anything that the system can recommend,” he says.
TV Genius’s Weiss is a little more sceptical. “We haven’t seen much interest from operators in terms of incorporating it into their services,” he says. “They are still quite conservative.” TV Genius has nevertheless trialed integrations with Twitter and Facebook, and ITV has launched its catch-up service on the latter.
The same point is made by SeaChange’s van der Heijden. “We have not deployed that yet,” he says, citing service providers’ wariness about opening up their platforms beyond the managed environment.
Ariely admits that service providers will want to generate recommendations based on what they actually have in their video-on-demand or linear channel catalogues, and also that not all customers will subscribe to social networks in the first place. However, he says, recommendations provided in a social context can also be useful to the operator: “The gap between content that’s recommended and your catalogue is your shopping list.”

The speed and enthusiasm with which pay-TV service providers embrace personalisation will depend on whether they find a business model that makes sense. Enabling subscribers to find content they want within their own environment is clearly in the interest of both provider and user. Extending that experience to embrace content and applications from the wider internet is more contentious, but the growing availability of alternative sources of content and the increasing willingness of a significant number of people to embrace them means that service providers will need to be flexible to stay one step ahead.