As a technology platform for search-driven TV navigation, Google TV has been an expensive and embarrassing flop. The first generation of set-top boxes didn’t work and didn’t sell. Google TV-enabled connected TVs were hobbled by a lack of processing power and an awkward user interface.
Given that track record, it’s hard to be optimistic about Google’s TV fortunes. But recent moves by the company to refocus its efforts around content, rather than technology, are at least steps in the right direction.
The splashiest move was last week’s announcement that Google would invest $200 million to create 50-60 new channels of professional-quality original content for YouTube, both in the U.S. and Europe. That effort comes on top of the $100 million or more the company has already spent to create roughly 100 such premium channels in the U.S.
YouTube’s global head of content Robert Kyncl told the Wall Street Journal the company hopes eventually to develop premium channels in most of the 49 territories where it has rolled out a local version of the website — an effort that could ultimately mean investing hundreds of millions more to create original content.
Separately, Kyncl said at the Abu Dhabi Media Summit this week that YouTube will begin experimenting with charging subscription fees for some of its branded content.
While the dollar figures and original content drew the headlines, arguably the more important recent move was this week’s announcement that the Google Play store will be integrated into Google TV, allowing Google TV users to rent and buy content directly from the Google Play store. Content purchased using other devices will also now sync with Google TV, allowing users to acquire content for Google TV using their Android-powered tablets or smartphones, solving the on-screen navigation problem that has plagued connected TVs since they were introduced.
The main flaw with the first version of Google TV was that it attempted simply to layer interactive technology onto what, for most consumers, remains a passive experience –watching TV — without actually improving or enhancing that experience. While consumers historically have been willing to integrate new technology with television — attaching a game console, or DVD player, or connected set-top box — it has always been in the service of adding more content, not more functionality.
Even if Google TV 1.0′s technology had been ready for prime time (it was not) the effort was wrong-headed. Integrating the Google Play store into the latest version, and integrating Google TV into the broader Android content ecosystem, suggest Google may finally be learning from those mistakes.
Likewise, the Investment in original content for YouTube suggests Google has figured out that for YouTube to remain relevant for the long term it needs to be more than a technology platform for sharing or distributing video content created elsewhere; it needs to be a platform for creating content as well.
By itself, that realization is no guarantee of success. Creating original programming is a hard and expensive business with more flops than hits. But in the media business, functionality follows form, and if Google means to be a real player in media, it needs to focus on the form. That means focusing on the content, not just how you deliver it.