Jul 30, 2012

2nd Screen Rising

While Google’s recent announcement of details around their Great Kansas City TV Adventure raised all sorts of questions about both their eventual intentions and the viability of their current ones, one crucial detail got lost in the shuffle.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Google is planning on giving every new subscriber to their pay-TV service an Android-based tablet to use as a remote control.

That’s a development we’ve been predicting for a while now, but Google’s announcement moves the timeline up. A tablet as a remote control opens the door for all kinds of 2nd screen apps, particularly one that’s controlled by the MVPD themselves. (Full disclosure: our KIT Social Program Guide app is a white label app that does exactly that: give control of the 2nd screen app and all the resulting data to the MVPD.)

By putting a tablet directly into consumers hands and telling them to use it as a remote control, Google is all but ensuring the rapid ascension of the 2nd screen, as other MVPDs are sure to follow their lead.

What remains to be figured out are all the UX  and design issues around those tablets: how they’re configured, what makes them easier to use than a remote control, how much do they incorporate voice commands and how many do you have per household. (We’re thinking that everyone in the family over a certain age gets their own so they can watch the same shows together while having personalized experiences on the 2nd screen device. See “Just Say No To Nielsen“)

It’s too soon to make any predictions here, but it will be interesting to see what Google does with their tablets and how much of the potential of 2nd screen apps their new service will take advantage of.

CHECK OUT THE SLIDESHARE: 10 Things You Need To Know About The Future of Television

Jul 16, 2012

Lessons From Netflix

While it’s a given that Netflix’s runaway success as an online streaming service took everyone (including Reed Hastings) by surprise, I’d like to offer up a few reasons why consumers are so enamored of Netflix.

First off, it just works. The UI is very well designed and has a real indie film theater vibe. Recommendations are sorted by quirky categories, but there are enough of them that it works as both a discovery engine (when I have no idea what I want to watch) and as a recommendation engine (when I do.)  It’s easy to search for movies and TV shows, and just as easy to watch them.

That may not seem like such a big deal at first, but the fact that there’s no Buy or Rent option, no HD or SD choice, makes the whole experience feel more like watching a cable channel than watching VOD. And if you’ve ever had to wade through the VOD offerings of the typical MVPD,  you’ll appreciate why a well done UI is so important.

Netflix also seems to have fewer fails than VOD services, less movies that don’t play correctly, cut out halfway through, buffer, buffer some more, etc. and so forth.

It also doesn’t have rights issues.

One of the most frustrating things about renting from iTunes and the cable VOD services is that you have a small (24 or 48-hour) window to watch the movie before your rental expires. I can’t tell you how many times I have started to watch something, fallen asleep or otherwise been distracted and then had to re-rent it because I did not have time to finish watching the next night. Netflix all-you-can-eat service might not get the most recent movies, but it lets me watch them whenever I want, as many times as I want– the latter being an especially crucial factor for anyone with small children, for whom 300 viewings of the same program is about average.

There are definitely some lessons to be learned from this: For content that doesn’t fall under the “gotta see it now” umbrella (and that sort of content is proving to be far more popular than expected) a one-price, all-you-can-watch system has a lot of merit.  It feels much more like watching a supercharged DVR than an add-on pay service, and in fact helps viewers to forget that they are actually paying for the privilege.  (Any TV-watching service that manages to get viewers to forget that they are paying for a service– like burying the cost of set top boxes in the overall bill– is a good thing.)

The second is that simplicity is always a virtue. A system that reduces the number of choices I have to make, around terms I don’t fully understand, is always going to win out.

Bill Clinton was on to something.

Jul 8, 2012

Aaron Sorkin and the Counterrevolution

One of the most fascinating aspects of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO drama The Newsroom, is just how blatantly anti-“spirit-of-the-internet” it is. Which is a sign that the pendulum is about to start swinging in the opposite direction.

For years, media was ruled by gatekeepers: editors who manned the doorways and decided what was worthy and what was not. They could do this because the means of production-- printing a book or making a movie-- were too expensive for the average person. And if that didn’t work, they could rely on the fact that distribution channels were tightly controlled: you could only buy books through bookstores. You could only watch movies at theaters or on TV.

The web blew all that up and gave everyone a voice. Even something as simple as letters to the editor took an a different cast online: the editors couldn’t just decide which letters they wanted to publish: on the web, every letter (or comment) got published.

While this change was much-needed, it now seems close to spinning out of control. This is particularly true of news, for as Sorkin’s mouthpiece, executive producer Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) notes, news is about truth, not entertainment. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers of the internet favor articles and videos that instantly go “viral” because they’re outrageous, not because they add to our understanding of the truth.

The emphasis on instant popularity and creating “virality” has cheapened the entertainment industry, too. I was recently on a panel where the CEO of one of the many data interpretation companies was adamant that the main benefit of any sort of social TV would be to enable producers to see what plot devices garnered the most buzz, so that they could then go incorporate them into their own shows.

I twitched. Visibly.  And gently reminded him of the dozens of “me too” shows Hollywood blasts out each year, few (if any) of which meet with success. The key to Oprah isn’t having a talk show with an outspoken-yet-empathetic black woman with weight loss issues as the host. The key to Oprah is Oprah: she has that secret sauce that people respond to and cloning her is not going to give you the recipe.

More importantly, the programs and plot devices that get the most social media buzz usually aren’t the most interesting or clever or thoughtful. Like news, they’re just the most outrageous or cute or funny. Because outrageous is what gets click-through. And outrageous makes us dumber in that it doesn’t ask for a whole lot of thought or reflection. 

Outrageous isn’t prima facie a bad thing; it becomes bad when it’s the only thing, and that is what is starting to happen with the new gatekeepers.
But back to the news, which is not about cloning formulas, but about doing actual reporting. There are stories that only a real journalist can do, stories that require weeks, if not months of research, which in turn requires an organization that can finance that research. 

I’m a bit of a zealot about this: I make it a point to post “only a journalist could have done this” stories to my social networks. (This New York Times story about Apple store employees is a good recent example.) And I do this to point out that while citizen journalists are useful, they ultimately have a small role in the news gathering process: providing on-the-ground, front line details during revolutions or natural disasters. They can give the immediate picture, but not the big one.

Ditto the legions of Tweeters who retweet catchy headlines, “5 Reasons Why” lists and any story that sounds vaguely racy or scandalous. Tweeters are very good at reporting the deaths of celebrities. They usually beat the mainstream media. 

But that’s about it. 

The bulk of the stories that get shared via social media are not, as Sorkin notes, about presenting the truth or both sides of the argument. They’re about presenting something outrageous or funny or cute enough to be passed along. Which is dangerous, because it can make it seem as if a non-issue (Sorkin’s example is Birthers) actually has two equally valid points of view.

That’s why The Newsroom has significance beyond it’s actual place in the TV universe. It’s the first popular voice to point out the tyranny of the crowd; the fact that the new gatekeepers may be just as bad as the old ones; and that once again it’s truth and art that suffer.

Sorkin’s may be the first voice, but I suspect it won’t be the last.

Jul 6, 2012

Google's iGoogle Decision Defies Logic

So I guess I'm not the only one angry about Google's decision to shut down iGoogle. But beyond my personal irritation with the impending loss of the site I use to keep tabs on everything from news to weather to sports scores to my calendar, it's just a mind-boggling maneuver.

iGoogle serves to keep users in the greater Google ecosystem. The built in search engine is Google. The calendar widget syncs with Google calendar. The mail widget is Gmail. Google gets the clicks through to any of the news/sports/entertainment sites. (And yes, I realize that it's fairly easy to build a widget for non-Google sites, but your average iGoogle user doesn't have the skills for that.)

That alone should be reason enough to keep it alive.

Now some observers have suggested that Google will try and bake these features into Chrome or GooglePlus or both. And given that it's Google we're talking about, this may well be the case. Which brings up the question: why piss off users by telling them you are shutting down the service (16 months in advance, mind you) when you could position it as an upgrade or combination of the "best of" two products.

They've got 16 months to change their minds.

Jul 2, 2012

Live Now: BeanCast Episode 207: Size Matters

This week I had another chance to appear on everyone's favorite
marketing podcast, the BeanCast.

In addition to affable host Bob Knorpp, I was joined by Chicago PR
legend Gini Dietrich and my old friend, author and serial entrepreneur Joseph Jaffe.

Conversation topics include YouTube's "professional" content and
enduring popularity, Facebook ads on Zynga and their overall viability
as an advertising vehicle for local brands; as well as Facebook's
tendency to adopt a "shoot first/ask questions later" attitude to any
and all changes.

And, as the podcast title suggests, does size matter?