Comcast Acquires Watchwith

Will tap Watchwith’s ‘deep metadata’ tech to accelerate new search and discovery capabilities for X1, other video platforms
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In move that tacks on technologies that will drive deeper search and discovery capabilities into its X1 platform, Comcast has acquired Watchwith, a company that has built a video metadata platform that can decipher what’s happening inside a movie, TV show or sporting event. 

Financial terms of the deal, which closed last month, were not disclosed.

Watchwith’s deep metadata platform can provide information about what’s occurring within the video, such as which actors are appearing on screen, the location of a given scene, or the start of a memorable scene within a movie or TV show. It does that through the blending of two tools – an editorial tool that enables producers to manually tag specific video segments, and an automated media analysis/tagging tool that relies on algorithms and machine learning techniques.

“When that process is complete, you have all of this information that, at a frame level, [tells] you what’s happening inside the video,” Rick Rioboli, senior vice president of CoMPASS (Comcast Metadata Products and Search Services), explained.

San Francisco-based Watchwith and its 15 employees, including CEO Zane Vella, are now part of CoMPASS, a unit at Comcast that has been quietly operating cloud-based metadata, search, personalization and recommendations services and platforms for all of the company’s video apps, including those for X1 and the X1 voice remote that was launched in May 2015.

Rioboli said Comcast has been building that team for about five years as it strived to unify several related projects spanning areas focused on native set-top platforms, X1 as well as mobile apps and the Web. He said the origins of CoMPASS stem from Comcast’s 2005 acquisition of StreamSage, a Washington, D.C.-based audio-video search startup that now represents to core of Comcast’s content discovery platform.

CoMPASS, Rioboli said, has traditionally been focused on content discovery at the program level, but sees Watchwith and its metadata capabilities an opportunity to drill deeper into those individual movies and TV shows and create new experiences and features for X1.

“We think there’s power in being able to understand what's happening inside the video, at a frame level or a scene level,” he explained.

The acquisition of Watchwith makes Comcast a more active player in the world of metadata, a market that has typically been the domain of companies such as Gracenote (soon to become part of Nielsen) and TiVo, which merged with Rovi last fall.

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Comcast is no stranger to Watchwith and its technology. The operator has already been using Watchwith to power two features that are relatively new to X1 – an “Auto-Extend” element that automatically extends DVR recordings of sporting events if games go beyond their regularly scheduled airtimes; and a sports highlights component that automatically creates metadata tags that enables viewers to jump directly to key plays and moments in a sporting event that’s recorded to the DVR. For the latter example, Comcast has initially implemented that feature for NFL and soccer games.

Rioboli said the new acquisition will help the company accelerate the development of other enhanced features that extend well beyond sports, and into areas such as news, TV series and movies.

Comcast’s X1 voice remote, for example, will already pull up Forrest Gump if the user utters “Life is like a box of chocolates” – a well-known quote from the movie. But the use of deep metadata, Rioboli said, could enable the platform to go a step further and take the viewer to that exact moment in the movie.

“We think the magic of the potential of deep metadata is to be able to take people directly into the part of the content that they are looking for,” Rioboli said. “We think it’s a very strategic space.”

The Comcast acquisition serves as solid exit for Watchwith, a company founded in 2006 that was known as Related Content  Database Inc. (RCDb) before undergoing a name change in 2012.

The deal “couldn’t be a better outcome,” said Vella, who has joined Comcast as vice president of product at the ComPASS unit. Early on, he’ll be focusing on creating a tighter integration of the Watchwith tools and technologies with X1.

Comcast and its product team “have shown an understanding and a commitment to the importance of metadata in not just driving guides, but in driving the future of the television experience,” Vella added. “People underestimate the power of metadata.”

Prior to its acquisition Comcast, Watchwith was busy in its own right with respect to other recent M&A-facing activity and some advanced advertising trials that are powered by its metadata platform.

In June, Watchwith acquired Arris’s Media Analysis Framework (MAF), a cloud-based machine learning and automated metadata-generation platform that tied into Watchwith’s native digital advertising platform.

RELATED: Watchwith Buys a Piece of Arris

Last year, Watchwith launched an in-program “contextual” ad platform for IP-capable set-tops, smart TVs and mobile devices. That effort, which included early participation from NBCU’s Bravo, enables programmers to offer interactive ad avails within shows that appear at pre-set cue points, and aims to create a new revenue stream that extends beyond traditional pre-roll and interstitial ad models that interrupt the show. Fox and Viacom are among Watchwith’s other known programming partners.

Rioboli said Watchwith will continue to support its existing customers even as Comcast accelerates development around its own products.