Even Thanksgiving can’t keep the Five Questions from coming! In the hot seat this week is Rovi Chief Evangelist Richard Bullwinkle, who previously held that title at Mediabolic and TiVo, and whose duties include defining the direction of Rovi’s products and technology solutions. Below, he discusses the importance of recommendation engines for consumers, his frustration with the influence of big companies over the marketplace and whether or not the feud between apps and browsers in the connected TV space is for real.
1. What’s the one big issue/law/attitude/restriction that you think is holding back the industry?
My biggest frustration in digital entertainment is with big companies who use their position to stifle innovation. Large brick-and-mortar retailers threaten not to carry DVDs of movies that are released the same day for digital download. Cable companies threaten not to carry content that is available online. Internet providers threaten not to carry the digital bits from companies that offer competing media. If a traditional method of distribution is feeling new competition, figure out a way to make the old one more valuable to the consumer or how to shift your business towards the new consumer demand. Don’t stifle innovation in hopes of maintaining archaic business models. It’s fat-cat syndrome — the failure to look over your shoulder and see that competition is always coming. You can either innovate or get passed by.
2. What industry buzzword do you never want to hear again?
Cord-cutting. [Ed. note: Ouch.] Traditional cable is just one way to get content, just like antennas were before that. It doesn’t matter if consumers use cable, satellite, internet or any of the other methods for transmitting data. They still want quality entertainment, good service and a fair value. Sure, some might move from cable to Internet-streamed content; others might move from cable to satellite or a telco provider. Only the people who have lost interest in television or have had significant financial setbacks are truly cutting the cord. Competition is a good thing, and the value of a consumer has only gone up over the years. We must find ways to hold or increase the value of a consumer’s eyes, no matter where they get their entertainment.
I do think that over time we’ll see Internet connectivity become more of a utility than a service. Just like the power lines in your house, the more Internet you use the more you’ll pay. But the idea that the internet companies might have a say as to what you plug into that internet connection seems as ludicrous to me as the thought that the power company might specify which appliances I plug in inside my home. In that light, the internet is probably the best way to deliver entertainment to a consumer in the future. Media companies who offer the best choices of content and the best service will thrive, no matter what the delivery method is.
3. If someone gave you $50 million to invest in a company in this space, which one would it be? (Mentioning your own doesn’t count.)
I wouldn’t give any company $50 million. The coolest startups with the best ideas could get a significant boost from $1 million. That said, I’d love to see Slacker offer a tiered service including their current custom radio solution, but for a higher subscription cost include on-demand songs and song cashing. Why Slacker? They have a deep library and a pretty good recommendation engine. Great recommendation for instant play-listing in music is the Holy Grail. Combine that with the ability to listen to any song any time, and you’ve got a darn-near perfect service.
Really, any of the good music services could offer something like this: Pandora, Mog, Rdio… Last FM. But subscription music is going to change how we consume music completely, much like Netflix has done for movie rentals. I think it’s going to take a long time for TV to get there with online subscription. No subscription service for television has a large enough content offering yet.
In the earliest startup phases, I get excited when I see innovations in recommendation. The biggest problem I see in the shifting entertainment landscape is the fact that consumers don’t know how to find content, and more importantly, they don’t want to. Content should find them. Great recommendation engines will foster that. I also get pretty excited when I see companies who try to solve the problem of attaching good meta data to the ever growing user-generated content library. No recommendation engines work without good metadata.
4. What was the last video (that you weren’t personally involved with) that you liked enough to spread to others?
I regularly recommend Ted Talks to people — almost any one of them will inspire you to think about things in a new way.
Also, my 12-year-old daughter Sarah and her friend Samantha made and edited a video last month with their cell phones that made me want to give her the money to go make a full feature.
The technology of capturing and editing has gotten so amazing and intuitive that any creative mind can create a piece that might change the world.
5. WILD-CARD: Rovi’s shown a new commitment to the TV app space recently; in the battle between apps and browsers in the connected TV space, why do you feel apps are a superior approach? And is it possible for both sides to co-exist?
Don’t confuse Rovi’s desire to compete in every entertainment space as a shift towards apps. In fact, we have great debates at Rovi about the value of apps to the consumer. Apps have a tendency to compartmentalize entertainment. If I’m in an app for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, as a fan I can get deep information about the show. But in that app, I probably can’t discover all the other shows that are similar, or the other shows the stars of Boardwalk Empire have been in. Consumers want to discover across networks, across genres and across providers. Comcast’s Xfinity app is very good, but doesn’t allow me to find great stuff on YouTube. Showtime’s Dexter app is very cool, but doesn’t allow me to discover other exciting thrillers like Silence of the Lambs.
Several of Rovi’s partners have created very nice apps-based televisions, and we want our software to be available on those televisions. We created apps. Other partners use embedded guide software, and we created powerful embedded guides for them. And yes, other partners are looking at delivering services through browser technology, on the fly and as consumers demand it.
There is no doubt that once the industry can deliver a user experience that is fast and rich that it will be superior. Rendering user interface in the cloud and delivering it the moment the consumer requests it gives us great power to make sure the search results and recommendations are perfectly up to date, and allows the TV manufacturers to keep the memory and resource requirements on their hardware at a minimum. We see cloud-based services delivered to browsers on the television as a great enabler of exciting services in the next few years.
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