Feb 27, 2013

The Meteor Cometh

So for a long time, we’ve been talking about the mythical meteor that was going to hit the TV industry and wipe out all the dinosaurs. Because there didn’t seem to be a logical out to the situation we were in, where everyone was making money and no one wanted to rock the status quo. Which left prognosticators like me talking about the meteor, the “something” that would happen and cause change in the industry. Only we couldn't figure out where that meteor would come from or what it would look like.

Then suddenly this morning, the meteor appeared.

I’m talking about the lawsuit that Cablevision filed, asking the court to void the late 2012 carriage agreement they signed with Viacom because Viacom had “coerced them” by “threatening to impose massive financial penalties” unless they complied with Viacom's demands."

There’s a wonderful irony in this too, given that it was Viacom who successfully shut down Cablevision’s TV Everywhere play back in 2011. 

But I digress.

The “why” isn’t hard to get: the MVPDs hear all the consumer complaints about bundling and they’re tired of getting blamed for it. It’s an odd thing: the networks are quite teflon when it comes to the viewing public, who blame the MVPDs for forcing them to take thousand channel bundles without ever considering that their existence is purely the doing of the networks, whose carriage deals leave the MVPDs with no other option.

And so after years of handwringing about how and where the first crack was going to be, who was going to "cave" and let the barbarians into Rome, it now seems that the answer is the Federal court system (and likely the Supreme Court itself, as neither side is likely to go down easily.) They will be the ones who step in and save the TV industry from itself. 

And if and when they do decide that forcing bundles on MVPDs is a bad thing, that will indeed be the moment the meteor falls and kills the dinosaurs and busts the industry wide open so that Apple TV and beautiful, personalized interfaces and cloud-based DVRs and dozens of other magical things we can now do with our televisions come to life and start populating the ecosystem like mammals who no longer need fear being chomped on by a tyrannosaurus every time they pop their tiny little heads out of their holes.

Only don’t hold your breath: it takes a while for a case like this to make its way to the Supreme Court. So that meteor’s not striking tomorrow.

Popcorn Moment: while you’re watching the festivities unfold, keep your eye out for whether any of the other networks or MVPDs jump in and join the fray. It’s in the network’s interest to keep things mano a mano, since if all the MVPDs join in and turn this into TV’s version of the Great War, public opinion is sure to be with the MVPDs and the forces of anti-bundling.

Once again, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the show.

Feb 25, 2013

The Problem With Facebook Data

The more I use Facebook Graph Search, the more evident it becomes that Facebook made a major mistake with their most ubiquitous feature: the “Like.”

Follow this train: Facebook’s value, their kryptonite, is their data. They have a billion users, and they know the habits and preferences of all of billion of them because they can easily track that information by examining what they’ve Liked.

Or can they?

On the pre-Like Facebook, users were Fans of pages. That information - which brands, bands, books, movies, sports teams, etc. a user was a Fan of was prominently displayed on the user’s profile page. Which meant users spent a lot of time curating those selections, pruning and adding so that the list was an accurate reflection of who they were. Or at least who they wanted people to think they were.

As a result, it was tough (or tough-ish) to get users to become fans of pages they didn’t think would give them social currency or look good on their wall. Hence, the Like, an easy way to give a brand a thumbs-up (and permission to coat your wall with brand messages.)

But while the Like button has become ubiquitous and a seeming smash hit for Facebook, it does not appear to be used in any consistent manner. That was its selling point: a lower key way for users to indicate approval for a brand, but it’s also it’s Achille’s heel: if users aren’t displaying any sort of consistency in the way they use the like button, then the resulting data is fairly inaccurate and not all that useful. (Bye-bye monetization.)

This is evident in the spate of Tumblr blogs flagging the random overlaps Facebook Graph Search pulls up (married men who like prostitutes, Christians who like porn) and in less quirky uses, like the study BTIG did on the accuracy of using Graph Search as a movie recommendation engine. What they found should be somewhat troubling for Facebook: the movies users Liked overwhelmingly dated back to the list they compiled when they first signed up for the service or to the last used the Fan format.

There are multiple reasons users are either promiscuous or inconsistent with their Likes, but they all circle around two competing forces: (A) If The Brands We Like are how we present ourselves to the world, it takes a lot for a new brand to crack that list and (B) if Likes are easy to give and easily buried in the News Feed, there’s no reason not to give them out at random.

Now by brands, I mean any sort of product: movies, books, songs, actors, vacation spots, along with the more typical products and services we call brands. To the consumer, they’re all a part of who they are, and attaching their name to anything other than the tried and true, when that preference is in a prominent location, is a leap.

The constant rejiggering of the Facebook interface - particularly the introduction of the Timeline, where the “About” section, with the brands and media the user likes, is now one level down-- has lessened the amount of attention people give to their Likes. That in turn, works on the validity of Likes from another direction: those who don’t see their Likes as a reflection of who they are are likely to become more promiscuous with them, and at the same time more random, on the assumption that the action has both an immediate value (unlocking a coupon offer) and limited aftereffects.

The other culprit here, perhaps even more to blame than Timeline is Frictionless Sharing: by posting every article the user half-glanced at and every song they or their offspring started to listen to, Frictionless Sharing greatly reduced the impetus the user had to be sparing with their Likes. While “Mary is listening to Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones on Spotify” was supposed to be of lesser significance than “Mary Liked Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones,” users did not really grasp that subtlety and many likely figured that if all bets were off, why not just start Liking just about everything?

While it’s possible to imagine a scenario where Facebook encourages users to carefully parse out Likes to new products so that their opinions can help guide their friends, it seems unlikely:  first and foremost there is the black and white nature of the Like: it’s an endorsement, pure and simple, in the way that 3 stars out of 5 is not.

Can Facebook fix this? Probably. They’ll need to rethink both the Like and frictionless sharing and the value users place on having their brand and media preferences prominently featured on their profiles. If they can solve for that in a way that encourages more, rather than less interaction, and more curation of the brands (media and otherwise) a user Likes, they have a good chance to make their data more accurate and thus, more valuable.

The stakes are high, and it’s a big “if.”

Feb 19, 2013

Talking TV On The TV: My Debut On The Brian Lehrer Show

Me, Natan Edelsburg from Lost Remote and TV critic Eric Deggans discussing the impact of House of Cards, Netflix in general and the future of television overall.

The clip starts at 30 minutes and 30 seconds in.

Feb 14, 2013

Intel Inside Your TV: Evaluating The New Intel Virtual MVPD Announcement

In an announcement so expected it seemed almost anticlimactic, Intel finally fessed up that they were indeed building a virtual MVPD and its companion device. The venue, the Wall Street Journal’s D: Dive Into Media Conference, was as puzzling as the tone of the announcement itself, which took the form of an interview All Things Digital founder Walt Mossberg did with Erik Huggers, the Dutch-born project lead.

Huggers spent the entire interview prevaricating. About the only statement he made without adding a weasel was “I am Dutch.” The rest was just one waffle after another: he couldn’t announce the name of the “consumer electronic device” Intel was introducing, other than to admit it wouldn’t be named “Intel.” He couldn’t say whether content deals were in place or who they were with. Just a purposely ambiguous “We are working with everyone right now.”

Whatever that means.

In a nod towards the Theater of the Disingenuous so common to the tech world, Huggers actually tried to convince a skeptical Mossberg that “carefully curated” content bundles were a better thing than a la carte, resorting to the old rhetorical trick of repeating his main point over and over, lest someone ask him to explain.

Not that Mossberg and his co-host Peter Kafka didn’t try. They grilled Huggers on that assertion and pulled out the sharp knives when the topic moved to Intel’s facial recognition feature, which uses a built-in camera to determine which family member is actually watching, so as to surface their preferred programming. (It wasn’t clear what happens if people are watching en famille, an equally common scenario.) While facial recognition software is not in and of itself creepy, Huggers’s description of the non-user initiated manner in which the Intel device would automatically recognize users prompted Kafka to ask him “don’t you think a lot of people are going to be skeeved out by that?”

Like I said, it wasn’t an easy interview.

Intel seems to be working off the notion that “if you build it, they will come.” They, in this case, being the various TV networks whose programming they need to make the Intel device a success.

The one tangible benefit Huggers spoke about was true BBC iPlayer type catch-up TV, where every single show would be available for 7 days after it was first broadcast. Though here again, it was unclear whether this was merely something Huggers would like to see or a real feature.

Stripping away all the “maybes,” it seems the Intel TV will be positioned as a premium product-- Huggers acknowledged it would not be a discount play-- where consumers would actually pay more for TV service in order to have a much prettier, more intuitive and useful interface. How much more this service would cost is up for debate. One source I spoke with estimated that Intel would need to pay the networks a 25% premium versus the other MVPDs for content. 

What’s more, while Huggers touted the Intel device’s groundbreaking interface, the “dream team” he mentioned assembling from Apple, Jawbone and Microsoft seemed to consist of sales and marketing superstars: there was no talk of anyone with UX experience, though that may have just been an oversight.

Bottom Line: While Intel is to be lauded for their commitment and for having come this far, the product may turn out to be a tough sell. 

First and foremost, there’s the content issue: I have a Verizon app on my Xbox that has around 75 channels on it. Unfortunately, none of them are channels I ever really watch (e.g. ESPN and the major networks are not on there.) If the Intel offering can’t get beyond a similar scenario, it’s likely to be dead in the water, particularly if it’s a premium product: why pay more for something I don’t watch? Intel’s plan seems to be to launch with a small group of channels and then hope the larger networks come on board as the product becomes more successful, but that’s far from guaranteed.

Another hurdle Intel will face is the difficulty of installation. This isn’t a Roku box that easily plugs into your existing TV system, this is a whole rip-and-replace move, and it’s going to have to be really, really good to get consumers to chuck their existing pay-TV service (set top boxes included.)  Given the premium price, this is going to be a whole-house install, not just something you throw on the TV in the spare room. Add in too, the strong aversion people outside the early adopter cohort have to somewhat complex installation scenarios.

The final hurdle Intel faces, one that several audience members brought up to Huggers, are the bandwidth caps the ISPs can impose, a particular issue given the amount of bandwidth that video eats up. While Huggers gave a long answer about advances in video delivery systems and the rapid growth of bandwidth capacity, he glossed over the most salient fact: for most people, their pay-TV provider is also their ISP, and the MVPDs are not going to want to give up that revenue stream.

All of which is too bad. The TV interface, as Huggers pointed out, does look like it was transported directly from a 1994 CompuServe page and finding what to watch has become more complicated and frustrating than ever. The MVPDs have flubbed the chance of creating a decent catch-up TV function, pushing a lesser version of that off onto Amazon and Netflix, while the price of all of the above keeps spiraling upwards. 

A well-designed, feature rich platform would be godsend for consumers, one I believe people would indeed be willing to pay a premium to own. 

If only the networks and MVPDs would play along.

Feb 8, 2013

Six Years Later, Your Brand Is Still Not My Friend

The failure that is Facebook Graph Search illustrates how much the company is sliding backwards rather than heading forwards. While the shortcomings of the new search process have been amply documented, suffice it to say that (a) it is still easier to find something on Facebook by entering the search parameter into Google along with the term “Facebook” and (b) an article on how to rejigger your privacy to meet the demands of Graph Search has been the most e-mailed piece on the New York Times website all week. (The fact that Graph Search surfaces the likes and dislikes of friends of friends-- along with their profile photos-- has a whole lot of people freaked out.)

Privacy is always going to be an issue for Facebook, but the main failure here seems to be in misunderstanding the effect previous “innovations” have on the accuracy of their information.

Take the ubiquitous “like” which replaced having to become a “fan” of a brand page. As this recent piece from Mashable pointed out, people would carefully curate the pages they were fans of so as show off their preferred version of themselves to the world: becoming a fan was a very conscious action. And while “like” was specifically designed to be an easier interaction that carried less weight, the result was that people used it promiscuously and with little forethought and/or curation, so that the list of things a user “likes” is rarely reflective of their actual tastes and preferences. Which leaves Facebook with data that’s fairly inaccurate and thus of limited value. 

One might argue that Facebook Graph Search and the threat it offers to users privacy might be a spur for people to begin culling down their “likes.” That’s unlikely (no pun intended) as many users now have dozens, if not hundreds of “likes” and eliminating them will prove to be a rather onerous process. So Facebook is stuck with billions of  halfhearted “likes” and no real way to do anything with them.

That’s almost, but not quite, as bad as the self-inflicted wound that is the Facebook brand page. For a while there, Facebook had a good thing going: brands had somewhat standardized pages with multiple tabs where they could run contests, share photos, handle customer service issues, etc. Even better, with a little work, those pages could be customized so that the graphics were consistent with the brand’s logos, not Facebooks. 

Consumers liked the separation that brand pages offered, because, as I’ve been preaching since 2007, Your Brand Is Not My Friend™, something the current Timeline configuration ignores: with Timeline, brand messages are mixed in with friend messages and are promptly ignored as unwanted intruders. Compare that with the tabbed pages, where visiting a brand page was a conscious activity, something you did when you were in a mind frame to interact with that brand. 

It’s the underlying idea behind the Ad Locker feature on the KIT Social Program Guide - brands benefit when people interact with them on their own time, when they are looking to do something that feels a lot more like shopping (which is fun) than listening to advertising (which is not.)

I get that Facebook is trying to find ways to monetize all the data they’ve collected from the third of the earth’s population who use the site. They just need to bear in mind that people don’t always act in a way that’s most expedient for advertisers. Build your model around the way people actually behave, and you’ll be able to find a workable solution.