Engineering a Better Television Experience

Howdy Pierce

I shouldn’t admit it, but I’m old enough to remember picking television shows very differently than we do today. Sonny, back when I was a kid, there were fewer choices in programming, it was impossible to time-shift, and if you missed something, you were out of luck. Out of necessity, shows were written on the assumption that even avid fans wouldn’t catch every episode.

Compare that to our landscape today: Cable operators are giving us the ability to watch just about anything we pay for, almost any time we like. Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer even more options while sites like YouTube and Spotify are getting into the game in niche, shorter-form and amateur video. SlingTV from DISH Networks is offering a super-compelling all-streaming package directly targeted at cord-cutters.

Content creators have responded by assuming that people are binge watching, and creating super-dense, nuanced storylines that reward deep attention, like “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones”.

So how can an over-the-top (OTT) video service stand out? One answer to this is “get exclusive content” – but that becomes a licensing conversation, and as an engineer I’d rather focus on some possible engineering-related differentiators. Here are four possibilities:

  • First, always provide great video quality — for the target display. People want to watch on everything from a 60-inch 4K display to a 4-inch iPhone 5se and have a seamless, stutter-free experience. Therefore, a streaming service needs to serve up the best video based on many variables, including screen resolution, available bandwidth and so forth.
  • I’d also like to emphasize the need to make it easy to watch TV. You’d think this would be obvious, but with these dialogue-dense, complex dramas, people want to hear every line. Give us a quick way to rewind 10 seconds, please—and even better, if we hit that button, how about turning on closed captions for those 10 seconds?
  • People also want to be able to watch anywhere. Today’s viewers expect to start viewing on one screen and be able to finish on another device. And they want to enjoy the content they’ve paid for whether home or away—for instance on the HD display in a hotel room. The industry is making strides in this area, but there’s still a ways to go.
  • It’s now possible to use detailed metrics to know viewers better than ever. In the past, research could inform content creators that a certain demographic might be likely to enjoy a certain show, but today’s specific data crushes that traditional model. Video services now know exactly what you watched and how long you watched it.

On that last point, imagine the data Netflix can glean by examining the viewership patterns of “Making a Murderer.” The true crime documentary consisted of 10 one-hour episodes, and Netflix is probably evaluating all sorts of data, including things like:

  • Is 10 episodes is the right length — could it have been longer or should it have been shorter to maximize engagement?
  • Was there is a consistent drop of interest in a given place? If, for example, a large percentage of viewers dropped off in episode seven, is that an indicator of length, or was there a plot point there that caused viewers to turn away?
  • Did people watch this on a Roku at home or on a smartphone during their commute? How does that compare to other content?
  • How does “Making a Murderer” fit in with other viewing behaviors? Did many “Making a Murderer” viewers watch other crime-related shows, fiction or non-fiction, or did they turn to more true-life documentaries, whether crime-related or not?

As new players like Spotify enter the video market, it’s likely they’ll at least begin their focus on what they know best. In Spotify’s case, they probably know more about their subscribers’ music tastes than anyone, so who better to serve up a video or rockumentary that’s likely to be watched?

The most successful companies will be the ones that can engineer the most compelling viewing experience — both technically and creatively — to the largest and most diverse audience, and the tools are getting better every day.

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