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Summary:

Online video firms, cable companies and social networks are trying to figure out new ways to personalize the content that people watch online and on TV. But in a world where content discovery is backed by an algorithm, what does that mean for TV programmers?

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The world has been a-buzz with news focused on making the next-generation of viewing experiences more personalized. But recent moves by companies like Netflix, Facebook and Comcast could sap some of the power of media companies that create today’s TV programming.

Over the last week, we’ve seen:

In all these cases, one thing is clear: The world is gradually moving toward on-demand viewing based on personalized recommendations. But in a world where viewers choose what to watch based on their own personal interests, what happens to the gatekeepers who previously had toiled to make sure people tuned in to a certain show at a certain time?

We’re already seeing the erosion of programmers’ influence in the way viewers watch TV through DVRs and online, with some shows getting nearly 40 percent of their viewers after a show airs. More than 5.5 million viewers of ABC hit Modern Family, for instance, watch the show on-demand or on their DVRs. It’s not as important today that a show has a particular time slot when so many of its viewers aren’t actually watching it live.

Personalizing recommendations, and allowing for new means of content discovery, takes that one step further. When content is discovered, through recommendation engines or by other means, it doesn’t matter to the user who made the show, what channel it’s on, or even whether it’s new or not. Perhaps the best example of this comes from Netflix’s recommendations engine: its streaming service doesn’t thrive because it offers users the hottest new releases, but because it consistently serves up content that is relevant to the user.

For users, the result is a steady stream of new and fresh content, and also content that’s more relevant and engaging than what one might find by purely channel surfing. And for content creators — especially independent content creators — personalized recommendations serve as a way to level the playing field. No longer does it matter whether a show appeared on broadcast, cable or online; the only factor that matters is whether or not a user might be inclined to watch it.

But for programmers — especially those at big media companies — the democratization and personalization of content is a direct threat to their business models. The ability to program a show lineup becomes less important when lead-ins are out of the control of the network. When a fan of a show like the U.S. version of The Office is recommended episodes of British comedy The IT Crowd, it takes away NBC’s ability to control and aggregate audiences in a way that’s necessary for the ad dollars it depends on.

So what’s the future of network programming, and how do media companies reach an audience that isn’t tuning in to a certain channel at a certain time? How do they get audiences to watch their shows, when an algorithm is in control of the recommendations?

In a personalized world, there will be more emphasis on quality of content, certainly, and niche content and the long tail will have its time to shine. But there will also be a place for sponsored placement, of the sort we already see on YouTube, for catching the user’s eye. The question is if that kind of placement will be enough to capture new audiences that otherwise might not tune in.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kiersten Balukas.

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  1. Good article, though I’m really not sure how this changes things beyond what the DVR has already done. The DVR effectively disrupted the “Thursday Night Lineup” concept. Personalized recommendations are the icing on the “watch what you want, when you want, where you want” cake IMHO.

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    1. Even in today’s on-demand world, you still generally pick and choose content to DVR based on what’s in the program guide. But now imagine that there is no program guide, just stuff that’s relevant to you. That has to scare the bejeezus out of some networks out there, don’t you think?

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      1. Agree with you Ryan, these personalization tools initiate another step in leveling the playing field between independent content creators and big networks.

        Still, at this point, big networks have strong brand equity and quality content.

        If they can master the use of these personalization tools, they can effectively adapt to a new delivery method.

        Whether they do or not and build a sustainable business model around it is the question…

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      2. I hypothetically agree, but don’t see the Guide going away anytime soon… Maybe for the earliest of early adopters, but (as we’ve chatted about) I think things are changing a lot slower in reality…

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      3. Let me play devil’s advocate. The remote control with P+/P- is still the easiest way to get access to content.

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      4. Let me play devil’s advocate.

        The remote control P+/P- is still the easiest (and brain-dead) way to consume TV. Why would a majority of people choose a more cumbersome approach? Agreed, FB integrates Netflix integrates Xbox integrates youtube integrates twitter integrates watchamcallit – but this still does not beat the simplicity of a P+/P-.

        For all talk of content customization, my two questions:
        1. How will this change consumption behavior?
        2. Live TV stays relevant for news, sports – unless the content creators in this space move out of TV distribution, consumption behavior is not gonna change.

        We might hate it, but live TV rules in the real world.

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  2. I can’t wait! Real women will actually get some interesting programing. I wonder how long it will take for the Corporate Medias “women’s content channels” to die since they have never had any women viewers anyway. This is going to be fun to watch.

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  3. In reading the comments you all are making a common male mistake. Assuming that the male view is the only view or the normal view. It is not the only view and you can’t even claim average or normal view since men are the minority. Yet men green light all programing that Corporate Media makes. Believe me there will be BIG changes when authentic women get a voice. There is only one financially relevant definition of “women’s content” in a free market, that is “content which women will pay to consume”. There has not been a free market in media and there is very, very little that the female audience who make 80% of purchasing decisions will pay to consume.

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  4. I first discussed w/Time Warner cable back in 1994 of offering a package of say 20 ch’s. for a monthly fee. The customer could pick any 20 ch’s he wanted from all the ch’s they offered. What they told me then was they didn’t have the tech to do it. I believe they could but were unwilling. I told them I’m done and I cut the cable in 1994 and went w/rental only. In the early 2000’s I started using the web and DVD rentals for the content I watch. I refuse to pay for any cable service that doesn’t offer me choice. Netflix has been a descent option w/the addition of their streaming. I have been saying for close to 20yrs that customers should have the choice to watch what they want when they want and finally we’re getting closer.

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