Operators cautious over content discovery

European pay TV operators seem caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to modernising their EPGs. On the one hand they know their EPGs must incorporate on demand and online content while taking account of the growing power of social recommendation and content discovery. But on the other hand they are fearful of confusing their customers in the process, and so are tending just to tinker with their EPGs rather than make the more fundamental changes needed to tap new sources of content and harness the power of recommendation.

In the UK for example, Sky did change its EPG in January 2011 to promote HD versions of channels in the line-up and also give prominence to its new Sky Atlantic premium channel. But this was hardly the major overhaul that Sky described it, merely involving a rearrangement of channels within the existing EPG structure. Similarly ZON, the Portuguese operator, delayed plans announced at last year's IBC in September 2010 to incorporate new user interfaces inside its EPG.

Yet recent research by TV Genius, the UK vendor of content search and discovery software, indicated that such tinkering with the EPG makes little difference on the selections customers make, amid growing evidence that social recommendation within Facebook and Twitter have a greater impact. Otherwise content selection is primarily influenced by traditional media such as newspapers and magazines, as well as online sources and TV trailers, according to the study.

But TV Genius identified rapidly growing use of social media by customers to recommend shows while they were watching, particularly soaps, dramas and reality TV, but also news and current affairs programs, especially when major stories were breaking, or controversial issues were being aired. The study also revealed that content with the highest audience ratings does not always receive the most recommendations. The most tweeted programs tended often to be ones people felt strongly about, whether this was because they covered a hot political issue or a cool garment worn by a popular personality.

Less popular movies also tended to be recommended if they turned out to be more interesting than expected. The implications for broadcasters and pay TV operators are clear enough. They need to somehow to tap into social recommendation and harness it to increase viewing of their content, particularly for unique slightly less well-known material where they can generate momentum by stimulating discussion. Yet at present they are all too often bystanders with the social interaction taking place outside their domain. They need to bring social media within their EPG, and find ways of triggering debate, admittedly in such a way that people who just want to carry on watching the programme are unaffected.

In the UK, the dominant cable operator, Virgin Media, believes it has found a solution to this EPG conundrum by adopting a two-tier system. Rather than tinkering with its existing EPG, it is introducing a brand new one, but only gradually to customers who elect to upgrade their service package by replacing their existing STB with a dedicated Tivo DVR integrating existing linear programming with both on demand and online content. This features boxes showing trailers of programs along the top, which the TV Genius research found was the most influential factor influencing content choices for 18- to 24-year-olds. The Tivo deployment is costly, for Virgin Media engineers spend on average an hour onsite with customers showing them how to use the new EPG, acting almost as evangelists for the cause.

It remains to be seen whether Virgin Media has found the winning formula for migrating customers to new wave EPGs. But the risk for other operators is of being left behind if they wait for their customers to be deemed ready for a move, and it is difficult to make the change gradually since it involves a major change in the scope and power of the EPG, with a graphical rather than text interface.