Putting the OTT Humpty Dumpty back together again

Jason_Friedlander_HeadshotBy Jason Friedlander, Senior Director of Product Marketing

When cable TV exploded back in the 1980s, it offered viewers an array of choices they’d never seen before. People who had grown up with only three TV stations now had access to hundreds of them.

The only question was how to keep track of them all. It was no longer possible to just surf channels until you found that Western you’d planned to tune into at 8pm. Instead, viewers turned to a resource that had been around for decades: TV Guide. The thick bi-weekly magazine packed in listings for every major channel, so that with a flip of its pages, a viewer could find the next broadcast of their favorite show. It also had fascinating articles that took you behind the scenes of your favorite shows or gave you reviews of the content airing across your channel lineup. Today, that analog solution seems archaic, but in the 1980s and ʼ90s it was worth big money. In 1988, News Corporation bought the publisher of TV Guide for $3 billion in the most expensive public transaction of its day.

Just like cable TV in the 1980s,over-the-top (OTT) TV today is at a pivotal moment in its history. For the past several years, we’ve watched every media brand build their own streaming app, from big broadcasters to online upstarts, resulting in over 200 OTT services available in the US alone. In doing so, brands have made an incredible amount of content accessible online, but also made it nearly impossible to find. Want to enjoy a given TV show or movie on a quiet night in? It might be on any one of a dozen-plus different streaming services. As there’s no central directory, you’d better budget some time to click through and check all of them to make sure what you want to watch is available – and if so, where.

Recommender systems already help customers figure out what they’re going to watch. The obvious next step is to help them figure out where they’re able to watch it. In other words, we successfully broke Humpty Dumpty apart, and now someone has to put him together again. The question is how?

Too many choices
It’s clear that platform fragmentation, and the understandable viewer frustration that comes with it, is holding OTT back. A recent study by Parks Associates found that 50% of OTT platform subscribers end up cancelling their subscription. That’s possibly because households are leapfrogging from OTT platform to platform, chasing their favorite movies and shows as licenses change or seasons begin and end.

It may also have to do with what some have called the Netflix Paradox – the idea that having too many choices isn’t really what people want after all. Research shows that an overwhelming number of choices means we’re more likely to be less satisfied once we finally pick; there’s always that subtle sense that maybe we could have chosen better. Users who download one OTT platform’s streaming app out of 50 different possibilities may find themselves quickly feeling buyers’ remorse.

The problem is bad enough for video on demand (VOD), but with the explosion of  live and linear OTT viewing options, knowing where to tune into a particular live event or program is only going to get more important – and confusing or even frustrating – to viewers.

It’s unlikely at this point that all content owners are going to license their video content to a single platform; the economics of it just don’t work out. But there should be a way to craft a solution that takes some of the pain out of overwhelming choice by making the OTT TV world easier to navigate. About 5 years ago, I was actively working as a vendor with Verizon, where I happen to work today, trying to solve this problem. Although we were close, ultimately the industry wasn’t ready for the solution we came up with. What we envisioned was a service that would sit on top of all of these separate apps, aggregate them, and make it easy to toggle between everything – a portal, if you will. This is what the consumer audience still needs today – a TV Guide for the streaming age.

A better, modern TV guide
Xbox and Apple have taken a crack at this problem with their OneGuide and Apple TV, respectively. These attempts to solve the problem do a lot, but they’re not comprehensive enough; they won’t tell you that the news is on in your ABC app at this specific time, for example. We need something that’s even more of an aggregator: for example, a service that costs $10 a month and tells users what is playing on which streaming service and when, and offers an easy way to click through to that service or remind a user that something they want to watch is on.

I’m a huge fan of English Premier League soccer and follow Tottenham Hotspur with a passion unlike what I feel for any other sports team. But trying to locate where any given game is playing based on who owns the rights to that season or tournament is mind boggling. Just this past year NBC made it even harder to follow by removing some games from the MVPD schedule and launching an app for $50 a year that airs the removed games. Then sometimes, the Champions League or League Cup games may be on ESPN, ESPN3, Watch ESPN or Fox Sports 1, or they might not air at all in the States. This is beyond frustrating! It’s great to have the opportunity to see nearly every game they play each year, but sometimes it’s not even worth trying to track it down. Okay, it’s always worth it – but you get my point.

The TV Guide-slash-aggregator I’m thinking of would solve this pain point easily. It could curate channels pitched directly at individual users, so they can experience a stream of personalized recommendations that make OTT TV watching as effortless as it is indulgent. We all know the distinct charm of “binge watching,” and in fact research has shown that autoplaying the next episode of a series encourages audiences to keep watching. An OTT TV aggregator could apply those same insights to content housed on several different OTT platforms to create an even more satisfying viewing experience.

It might seem old-school, but the opportunity for a newfangled TV Guide would be enormous – not to mention all the ad opportunities that could arise as well. By linking together the rapidly expanding OTT TV ecosystem, such a service would set itself up for meteoric growth. It could curate the viewing experience and offer users insight into what is on to increase discoverability across the multitude of OTT applications. The only question is who will set it up first?