How one sports geek wants to save cable TV with data

Mark Phillip wants to save cable television. Well, kind of. He really wants to make life easier for sports fanatics like himself, but in doing so has created something he thinks could save cable and satellite providers from the cord-cutting craze that companies like Netflix(s nflx) and Hulu have helped bring about. The secret to his possible success: data.

Mark Phillip

Phillip’s creation is an application called Are You Watching This?!, or RUWT, something with which sports fans might already be familiar. It’s already available on iOs(s aapl) and Android(s goog) devices, as well as on web browsers, and it constantly analyzes streams of sports data to let fans know what games they should be tuning into and where they can find them on TV and enables them to vote on games Digg-style. For Google TV and TiVo users, RUWT actually lets them change the channel to tune in to a game.

Now, RUWT is looking to make an even bigger impact — and lots of money — by opening its API to third parties. And Phillip says the broadcast-television world is drooling with anticipation; an unnamed cable company already tried to buy RUWT a couple of times, says Phillip. Not only do they see the potential to revolutionize how people watch sports on TV, but RUWT’s technology could be expanded to all types of programming.

First, a primer

In order to understand why Phillip thinks RUWT could be such a game-changer, you have to understand how sports broadcasting works. The problem for sports fans, he explained, is that on one out of every four days, there are more than 100 sporting events being broadcasted. On Nov. 14, 2009, there were a whopping 510 games broadcasted.

Games are spread across more than 8,000 channels, and differences between provider channel lineups and geographies result in more than 2 million possible programming combinations. It’s hard enough to know what’s on where you live, much less figuring out what’s worth watching.

What RUWT does, Phillip said, is keep track of what’s on and where, as well as the hundreds of data points streaming into its system during every game that’s on. An algorithm rates games based on the number of exciting things going on (e.g., lead changes, overtime, a big upset in the making or a no-hitter going into the eighth inning) as well as by the input of RUWT’s roughly 25,000 “super fans” at any given time. Users looking at the RUWT app on their screens will see a scoreboard-like interface with games tagged either “OK,”  “Good,” “Hot” or “Epic,” and can tune in accordingly.

Actually, Phillip said, it’s the fan voting that helps separate RUWT from its primary, and larger (RUWT is a one-man show) competitor, Thuuz. Fans help provide subjective influence that algorithms just can’t determine, perhaps things such as a plethora of great slam dunks or hard hits during a hockey game. It’s like Digg or Reddit, only for live games. So far, RUWT has rated more than 150,000 games across a dozen sports.

Of course, left solely up to fans, he acknowledged, anything involving hugely popular teams such as the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys would always rate the highest, so the objective data analysis is necessary. “You have to nail it all,” he said, “or no one’s willing to pay you for it.”

The utility of a service like RUWT doesn’t end when the day’s games are done. Phillip said fans can rank games after they’re finished and before they start, and the system also keeps track of results, which helps in predicting how exciting future games will be. Everyone might suspect that a New York Yankees versus Boston Red Sox game will be worth watching, but RUWT can use history and pre-game excitement to let you know in advance whether a seemingly mundane game might be a classic.

How RUWT could change TV viewing

Now that Phillip is letting third parties pay for access to the RUWT API, he suspects a sea change is in the making in the way we watch television, and one that could help keep traditional providers from losing business to web-based services. In fact, he told me, “an unnamed cable company tried to buy me out a couple times.”

How RUWT might work on the TV

Live sports is the lowest-hanging fruit for cable, given it’s the primary reason many consumers keep their cable and satellite contracts instead of migrating entirely to streaming services. The way Phillips envisions it, RUWT could be available as a white-labeled app from your service provider (like the NFL RedZone channel, but for all sports) and could also proactively alert viewers to exciting games happening on another channel. So, while you’re watching a “Law and Order” rerun for the hundredth time, an alert might pop up telling you your alma mater is going into overtime on one of the sports channels buried at the bottom of your channel guide.

He also thinks sports-bar chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings could leverage the service to know what games to turn on during the day, and to market promotions before or even during games based on what’s going on.

Going forward, there’s no reason RUWT couldn’t be adapted to include everyday programming and alert viewers to what they might want to watch but not know is on. That would help create a personalized experience similar to what users can get with a service like Hulu. “I shouldn’t have to search for great content if I’ll gladly give [my TV provider] all my Facebook likes or Netflix likes,” Phillip said.

Right now, however, Phillip said most cable and satellite providers (save for maybe the web-centric FIOS(s vz) and U-verse(s t)) are hindered by outdated set-top boxes, so they’re not quite ready to use RUWT to its full potential. Phillip’s only user as of now is AOL’s(s aol) The Sporting News site, but he said he has had many meetings with television providers, and a “very large sports property” is working with him on a new mobile app. By March Madness later this month, he said, RUWT should have four official customers.

An interesting side note is that RUWT isn’t the only company trying to save the cable and satellite businesses by using data. In January, I covered a project by analytics firm Opera Solutions that aims to create peer-to-peer networks of set-top boxes grouped by users’ preferences in streaming movies. The idea is that the algorithms would provide more-accurate recommendations, and the geographic proximity of other network points would speed the download process.

Opera’s approach is somewhat different from RUWT’s, but the idea is the same. If you’re able to give subscribers the content they want and to curate it so they can sort through the noise of hundreds of channels and thousands of movies, Phillip said, “people will be more comfortable paying their cable bill.”