The iTV Doctor Is In!: Searching for Guidance

Dear iTV Doctor:

I am in video services management, and I have to deal with (literally) millions of pieces content: linear, VOD and even YouTube! Everyone from Marketing to Customer Care is screaming at me that we need to be more like Netflix and Amazon--video recommendations based on what you watch. Of course, our programming network partners want the viewers to "discover" THEIR content. And I have to deliver it on cable, online, on connected televisions and on companion devices--literally Video Services Management Everywhere! Meanwhile, the legal department is handcuffing me with privacy issues, IT is saying that our metadata is a mess, and the software engineering folks are pushing me back to second half of 2013. Can you help?

Searching for Guidance

Dear Searching:

The bad news is it's getting harder every second. In the time it takes for you to read this column, about 300 hours of video will be uploaded to YouTube (60 hours per minute), with about 4,000,000,000 (that's four billion) page views a day. Add to that all the copyrighted video from programming networks and other content providers and you have a problem that simply can't wait until the second half of 2013.

One of the most critical value propositions for multichannel operators is their ability to help their subscribers find entertaining programming. That's how their subscribers justify their payment every month--no entertainment, no payment.

And operators have to provide that assistance, while managing critical privacy questions. As you mentioned, it's so easy for Amazon and Netflix to install cookies with their broadband services. But our industry is held to a MUCH higher standard. Capturing, storing and using individual television viewing data can be a regulatory and consumer-rights nightmare. Especially now with all the activity on Capitol Hill.

And all the while, we find the content-management environment moving at an insane pace, so that operators' in-house development teams struggle to keep up. The traditional "build vs. buy" arguments are obsolete. And the competition is racing ahead.

Bill Niemeyer of TDG Research argues in a new report (see the article published on, March 5th) that most pay-TV subscribers simply don't realize how much VOD content they have access to, and that, as a result, Netflix is trumping cable's VOD product. In Q4 2011, Netflix US subscribers watched 80% more streaming video hours than were viewed in the same period on all US pay-TV VOD platforms, he points out.

I've done a lot of work in the guidance world--at TVSM, TV Guide and iSurfTV. I even have a patent somewhere out there. But when it comes to grappling with today's content explosion, I am out of my depth. So I turned to Orca Interactive, a company I was introduced to at the TV of Tomorrow NYC Intensive conference last December. I spoke to Sefy Ariely, Orca's VP of marketing.

iTV Doctor: Let's go right to the question: How can operators resolve the conflict between their marketing folks ("Get us guidance NOW!"), their legal staff ("Don't violate privacy!") and their software developers ("Captain, we need more power!")?

Ariely: Has there ever been a time when those three groups have NOT been in conflict? It's the very nature of our business. The fact of the matter is that it's even worse when the market is hyper-competitive (especially with regards to multiscreen video) and the headlines come fast and furious. And now, there is a microscope on privacy and it is NOT going away. In spite of the potential challenges, an operator's determination has to be driven by one overarching consideration: creating a user experience that will convince users to PREFER an operator's service even when they have other options. Netflix wouldn't have grown to such mammoth proportions if they didn't provide a better shopping experience with greater cross-device accessibility.

iTV Doctor: How exactly do you create that user experience?

Ariely: Before we talk about "how," let's talk about "where." With all of the online content in the cloud today, and VOD moving to the cloud tomorrow, the operators are in the enviable position of being the one place their subscribers can go to actually find programs they want to watch, wherever and however they want to watch it. Recommendation and discovery software can be in the cloud, or "on the premises," as long as they are able to reach each and every device (tablets, smartphones and set-top boxes) a subscriber chooses to use.

iTV Doctor: And you use the metadata to determine what every piece of content is about, which to me sounds perfectly logical. So why is this still causing sleepless nights in the IT departments?

Ariely: Existing backend systems deployed by operators are much more convoluted than they would have you believe. Whether through acquisition or lack of an overall game plan, there are inconsistencies in the manner in which metadata is ingested and retained, and it is a common problem. To make matters worse, there are at least as many standards initiatives towards metadata as there are formats. So it's no surprise that operators are a little lost when it comes to the importance of metadata and the work they need to put into cleansing their database and data structures. As far as recommendations go, they are currently over-analyzing the problem to the point of paralysis. We try to help them out by offering a variety of engines, each having a different sensitivity to metadata (some not sensitive at all, others rely on only a few metadata fields such as "Title" and "Year"). This isn't to say that they shouldn't clean house anyway, if only for better presentation of metadata in the UI. It simply doesn't need to be the showstopper that it is towards providing a good discovery experience.

iTV Doctor: What do you do about privacy?

Ariely: The "cookie" question steps on a very dangerous landmine. Operators believe, with good reason, that they will be held to a higher standard of privacy than Google or Amazon. That is why they are treading very carefully around a whole set of "Opt-In/Opt-Out" privacy management and protection. It takes skill and agility to navigate this minefield; there simply can't be a "one size fits all" approach. By leveraging the different algorithms in our solution, operators can choose to offer highly personalized recommendations, or less personal recommendations for those customers who haven't opted in yet. By offering social recommendations and linking to personal Facebook accounts, we create a built-in "hook" to convince users to agree to use a personal profile (and therefore opt-in). By distinguishing between different devices, we allow operators to "play it safe" in the living room while leveraging personal devices to provide personalized recommendations.

iTV Doctor: How much control can the operators really have?

Ariely: At the end of the day, operators want to take recommendations and content discovery to different levels. Some want "the whole nine yards," while others are satisfied with just putting up a "Top 10" list (and these approaches may change over time). Whatever they choose to do, they need to realize that when they put recommendations in their service and use their relationship and intimacy with the user to suggest a movie/program, it is their reputation that is at stake.

They need to have control over the result to make sure they don't sully that reputation. A large operator may have the resources to purchase a start-up or "build" their own solution based on their specific needs, but the others need to exercise a "buy" option. Our strength is in the degree of control we allow them to exercise beyond the selection of the vendor; we allow them to be as hands-on as they wish (in the short or long term) and to decide where they want to go with this. They can rely on what "the market" says, or they can base the recommendations on what "their market" says. They can dance around privacy issues by offering "sanitized" recommendations until their legal department gives them the "all clear" and then seamlessly dive straight into highly personal recommendations.

iTV Doctor: How can the operators find you?

Ariely: We'll be at the CableLabs Winter Conference in Philadelphia.



The iTV Doctor is *Rick Howe*, who provides interactive television consulting services to programmers and advertisers. He is the recipient of a CTAM Tami Award for retention marketing and this year was nominated to Cable Pioneers. He is also the co-author of a patent for the use of multiscreen mosaics in EPG's. Endorsed by top cable and satellite distributors, "Dr" Howe still makes house calls, and the first visit is always free. His services include product development, distribution strategy and the development of low-cost interactive applications for rapid deployment across all platforms. Have a question for the iTV Doctor? Email him at

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