Cable Operators

Finding Needles In The VOD Haystack

5/09/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

There can be too much of a good thing.

As cable operators crank video-on-demand libraries
past 25,000 titles, TV viewers need better ways to find
and manage the VOD
they want to watch.
New search, discovery
and recommendation
tools promise to drive
up viewing — and give
subscribers a compelling
reason to turn to
their pay TV provider,
rather than over-the-top
alternatives.
Comcast, for one, has
been working steadily
on this issue for the last
five years, according to
Tom Blaxland, Comcast
Interactive Media
senior director of product
management for
websites.

The MSO launched a concerted program to develop new
video search, discovery and recommendation capabilities.

SURFING AIDS

Initially, Comcast identified the problem with Web video
because whereas VOD servers traditionally have had
limited capacity, “online, you can add servers willy-nilly,”
Blaxland said. “We realized pretty early on that you can’t
just have a list of 60,000 things and expect someone to
scroll through them one at a time.”

Comcast now offers several different ways of surfacing
content across VOD, linear TV, online and on its Xfinity TV
apps, including browsing, text searches, editorial recommendations
and pointing out similar programs.

One popular new feature on Comcast.net is the Xfinity
TV Watchlist, which lets subscribers “follow” their favorite
shows, movies and actors in a Netflix-like queue and receive
notifications when something on the list is coming up online,
on TV or on VOD. Since it debuted last October, 800,000
subscribers have activated a Watchlist, and Comcast is now
in the process of delivering the functionality via its set-top
guides, Blaxland said.

“We can do all this stuff on the Web today, but developing
this for set-top boxes takes longer,” he said. “It’s
nascent, in terms of the number of people who are using
the apps right now, versus the people still using the settop
guide to access VOD.”

Cox Communications
focused on personalized
search and
discovery options in
its Trio program guide
that debuted in mid-
2010. It provides integrated
search (results
from linear channels,
VOD and digital
video recorders),
personalized options
(user-specific, by
household member),
saved search capability
and search by keyword,
title and cast and crew.

“Cox is acutely sensitive
to the ‘paradox of
choice’ that our customers face when deciding among the
thousands of content choices they have,” vice president of
video product development Steve Necessary said.

NETFLIX FACTOR

One of the key points of reference for TV operators is
Netflix, which has done a great job of presenting recommendations
to viewers in an easy-to-use format and promoting
titles from its catalog, according to Keith Kocho,
director of business development for Cisco Service Provider
Video Technology Group (and formerly president
of ExtendMedia).

“Everybody wants to be like Netflix,” Jinni co-founder
and CEO Yosi Glick said.

Jinni is cracking the content-discovery problem with its
video-recommendation engine, which picks from more than
2,000 semantic tags (like “witty” or “uplifting”).

The system applies relevant tags to TV shows and movies
based on title, synopsis and reviews, creating an “entertainment
personality” for an individual piece of content.

“You can break that down into various tastes, and each one
can become a virtual channel,” Glick said.

He said two “tier-one cable operators” in the U.S. are developing
content recommendation features using Jinni’s
system, initially for VOD.

For many cable operators today, the search and discovery
with VOD are totally separate from live TV and DVR,
Sharon Metz, Rovi’s vice president of vertical markets,
said. “It’s a bifurcated experience today. Th e heart of the
integrated search experience is, I type something in one
place and get results for everything.”
Providing an integrated search across linear and VOD
platforms also can potentially improve the suggestions for
on-demand content, Kocho said. Service providers in general
have largely the same content rights, “so you need to differentiate
on the search-and-discovery experience. If you don’t do
it right, the consumer feels you’re not bundling it properly.”

TABLETS JOIN THE MIX

Another concept coming to the fore is that of a “companion”
device, such as the iPad apps from Comcast, Time Warner
Cable and Cablevision Systems. In addition to letting consumers
watch video right on the tablet, the apps provide
a different avenue for finding out what’s on TV and VOD.

A key benefit is that such devices can provide more advanced
search and navigation features, compared with
traditional program guides, according to Neeraj Sinha, director
of product management for Motorola Mobility: “It’s
hard to emulate what you can do with a touchscreen with
a four-way remote.”

Another advantage of apps for tablets or smartphones: Operators
can potentially deliver better automated recommendations
“because you have the device that’s used by one person,
as opposed to the set-top box, which is shared,” NCS vice president
of interactive and broadband Steve Tranter said.

Eventually, set-top functionality will move up the food
chain, to a residential gateway and then up to the headend
— ultimately decoupling the guide from the physical
hardware, Tranter said. “Once you have that mentality that
you’re creating a guide for a service rather than a device,
you can be more creative,” he said.

November