As Millions of Videos Come to TV, How Will We Choose?


So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast/And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast/’Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet/And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace,/Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”/”Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”

–Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”

Yikes. Imagine how the Boss would have snapped trying to find something to watch on today’s TVs with 500 channels — or the forthcoming Internet-connected televisions that will open up millions of TV-watching options. Freedom of choice is great… until there are too many choices. Right now, folks at home use the standard TV grid to scroll through channels and programming. But the move from linear TV to a new world of on-demand broadband television will require a fresh, more elegant user interface for navigating through an ocean of viewing options.

“If a user sits down and says ‘nothing’s on,’ we have failed,” says Tom Woods, director of user experience for Rovi (formerly Macrovision), “I guarantee that out of hundreds of channels, Internet content and premium services, there is something of interest to them.”

But finding what’s of interest is the key. When there were fewer channels and no meaningful video on demand options, grid-style navigation screens worked just fine. The problem is that the grid has only two dimensions: channels and time. This approach fails as the number of “channels” and VOD options explode. The possibilities are too great. “People don’t want to see that vastness; it’s overwhelming, because what they want to see is tiny,” says Todd Wilkens, senior practitioner for Adaptive Path. “Instead of seeing as much of it as possible, once it’s at that size, you want to hide as much of it as possible.”

To hide as many of the options as possible and make viewing more enjoyable, TV user interfaces and guides will need to rely on a combination of search, recommendations, content-centric thinking and design.

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  1. ^^^My frustration with “There’s nothing on” is that, as a DVR sub, I already pay for thousands of movies a month, and a hard drive to record them. Yet it’s still difficult to easily find and record them.

    Why? B/c the grid guide is not built for time-shifted viewing.^^^

    I built a little site at as a baby step toward fixing this issue. It’s the first site dedicated to this (admittedly narrow) slice of the problem.

    The operators, of course, don’t have open remote schedule APIs, but if they did, a ton of innovation would happen around Social TV viewing that would improve the TV experience for all of us–even if we didn’t want to be actively Twittering. And btw, “remote add to VOD list” is even further away, sadly.

  2. Chris Albrecht Thursday, July 30, 2009

    I too want to hear more of this flocking. I smell a conference call! Thanks for the comment Robert.

    Interesting to note about HBO. I spoke with them a couple years back and asked them about movies vs. original programming. At that time, they said more people signed up for the service because of the movies — not the shows. Just an interesting nugget about what people are looking for there.

  3. I just spent a half a day at the Communications Future Program at MIT talking Social TV. I know that there are a lot of groups looking at the same thing, but starting with the interesting experiment Facebook TV to some of the projects coming out of the Media Lab there is a lot of energy going into “flocking” in choosing content, as well as the algorithms that help tame the multiple choices.

    I am looking forward to how they manage the work and what are the products that come from their research. However, the unintended consequences – both good and bad – are the most interesting. Will social tv make our choices homogeneous? Will the flocking lead to content producers to lead us to even more vanilla choices or do we believe the long tail will happen? I sometimes worry about the assumption of the long tail because of the cost and time that goes into making a creative program is so much greater than recording a song or even writing a book.

    Good times all around though..the plethora of choice will lead to more innovation and around it goes…

    1. @Robert – Wow, that MIT discussion sounds fantastic. I’d love to hear more about that conversation!

      I think the long tail, while a theoretically valid concept, was one of the most overhyped foundational premises in venture backed business plans in the content space over the last few years. You had companies like Akimbo making terrible decisions and launching businesses that had no hope of succeeding. The truth of the matter is the big-time audiences continue to “flock” to the best content. There’s a reason tens of millions subscribe to HBO, and why Hulu has been the story of online video over the past 12 months.

    2. Hi Robert, would appreciate link to MIT’s Social TV program. Thanks

  4. texasyellowdog Friday, July 24, 2009

    ^^^Interestingly, pirate content on the web is dead simple to find. There are announcement services for new content with pointers to reviews and search engines to find older content. These are cooperative efforts without corporate fence building roadblocks. It’s pretty much on-demand with all the world’s content available. It’s going to be tough breaking that habit.^^^

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