Several years ago I was talking with a company called Miniweb, founded by the redoubtable Ian Valentine, and their proposition was to index video content and make it available through their portal to consumer devices. I liked it but fortune didn’t favour them and the ideal was not achieved. Talking with Ian and others at that time really did distill what I had been thinking: that the app model really doesn’t work for TV when you don’t have a suitable search and discovery model.


A little while later I was involved in discussions with the team at BBC R&D about a concept codenamed “Project Canvas” that later became YouView. Those that followed it know that that project wasn’t without its controversy and I confess there were aspects of it that I didn’t think went well, but importantly I really admire what they ended up with from a search and discovery point. Because of my previous involvement with that project I’ve been using YouView since before it was launched and although the box doesn’t fulfill the ambitions of many ‘early adopters’ it actually really does a fantastic job as a catch-up and on-demand system blended with a decent television recorder.


YouView allows you to search for anything available in the pantheon of UK catch-up TV and now has also added NowTV from Sky and Sky Store. But more importantly it allows you to browse, browsing is really undervalued because people take it as being so obvious, but it isn’t just about editorial, it is about having one unified index of all the choices and showing you that in a way that you can swallow. Showing someone thousands of options doesn’t help them, most people can’t pick a sandwich without panicking given just a list of ingredients.


However in a discussion recently with some gentlemen from the industry the point was made that too much choice and all driven by popularity doesn’t help you with ‘serendipity’. Popularist content will rise to the top, less well known content will be buried; ultimately we end up with homogenised, pasteurised and ultimately bland choices. Often when I am looking through the YouView popular content window I see lots of childrens content and it stays there for a long time, this is because children’s content is often watched over, and over, and over again.


To counter popularist choice ‘recommendation engines’ are proposed based on the idea of things you’ve previously watched and perhaps shown a like or dislike for. TiVo was the pioneer here with DVRs that recorded things you wanted to watch, if you watch some sitcoms you might even see references to people TiVo pranking someone by favoriting objectionable content when they aren’t looking. But there are two types of recommendations people are exposed to: those that are purely associative and algorithmic and those that are based on editorial decisions. Editorially driven is interesting because it allows for perhaps more serendipity but also allows content owners to drive their own agendas: “great power involves great responsibility” - Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Recently surfacing is Tank Top TV, their system of indexing all the VoD and catch-up services to provide a unified search system is interesting. I’m trying it and it really has a lot of potential, but I have yet to have it drive me to watch something, however I am trying it during working hours not leisure time, so it needs more time with me. The most interesting thing will be when Tank Top TV is integrated in a consumer electronics device and can directly drive people towards viewing.


Fundamentally search is one aspect, it is useful when you know what you want but perhaps don’t know where it is. The real value for consumers is in discovery and discovery is about finding what you want to watch but when you don’t know what you want to watch. However the biggest mistake is showing people what they can’t have, perhaps you aren’t in the mood for PPV? How can you filter the results and only see things that are free or within subscriptions you already have? How can you see what value a subscription might have? This part in particular is seen as dangerous by some VoD providers who don’t want you to know how bad their selection might be.


Ultimately Pixsan is a provider of tools which allow people to put their content on the screen and also discover what content they want to watch. In the realms of search and discovery we work with the people who have that data and that knowledge, we help them present it to the consumers. With our next generation middleware we can achieve all the potential that consumers want without the overheads of the past. So if this interests you why not get in touch? We have the tools and the knowledge to help you reach consumers.

Bob Hannent