A sea of content prompts service providers to look at next-gen content navigation tools

The swelling ocean of content spilling into the broadband, video and mobile pools of programming choices is prompting service providers to not only expand their current content navigation tool sets, but in some cases, abandon outdated linear guides altogether.

Comcast reported more than 5 billion VOD views since 2004, with 9,300 VOD programs available each month, an example of both the expanding appetite for video and the breadth of choice consumers now have.

Viewership is only multiplied as more devices carry more content. A fresh study by comScore is clear evidence of the surge of content being carried across multiple platforms. It found that 70 percent of Internet users, using a variety of devices, viewed 123 billion videos online, with an average length of 2.6 minutes.

More routes are now being mapped...
More routes are now being mapped to find content over multiple platforms and devices.

Increasing numbers of consumers trolling through an ever-expanding volume of content using a growing multiplicity of devices complicates navigation, but at the same time, providers have to make navigation simpler. Consumers want to make the fewest possible clicks to locate and play content, and cable MSOs – along with competing telcos and satellite companies – are getting the message: there must be improvement in navigating the sea of content.

“As content expands to VOD, HD and on-demand, and as we’ve moved into the hundreds of channels, there is more need for sophisticated navigational tools,” says Mike Paxton, principal analyst for the research group, In-Stat. “But it’s moving slowly, and hasn’t been a high priority like HD or channel bonding. But long term, several providers realize they not only have to package content, but turn guides and navigational tools into revenue generators. We’re nearing the point of an overwhelming amount of content, and guides and navigational tools are the central pieces.”
The route to an easier, more compelling method of content navigation for customers is through choppy seas, however.

“The market is changing. Customers are spending more time on other devices and their expectations are changing,” says Mark Hess, senior vice president of business and production development for digital TV at Comcast. “On the video side, people want to watch TV, not play with a guide. So, we want to highlight content and make it easier and more comfortable for them to find content, particularly as On Demand grows. We can’t just come up with a brand new navigation scheme, but we are working value into the menu bar.”

The OpenCable Application Platform, Hess notes, should help. “OCAP is important. When we put iGuide on a set-top box, there are two different vendors and various software. So, those permutations make it hard to innovate. OCAP will allow us to iterate faster. We need to build quickly on known, open platforms.”

Cox Communications also plans to focus more attention on upgrading its content navigation tools. “This (content navigation) is extremely important.

Lisa Pickelsimer

There is lots of HD, VOD and on-demand content being added. We’re using Mosaics, barker videos and designing a next-generation user interface (UI) which we intend to build later this year and in early 2008,” says Lisa Pickelsimer, director of video product development for Cox.

She notes that Cox is adding integrated search and recommendation engines, both designed to increase the chances of a customer easily finding their content. “Ease of use is our top of mind issue. Our well-defined goal is to make it simple and consistent to find content across all platforms. The market is demanding that.”

Yet with those demands come a number of challenges, from both the business and technology sides. Adds Pickelsimer: “There are technical and business challenges to content navigation. We have legacy video systems and newer data and telephony systems, so there is a technical evolution to bring them together. We’re working on that through OCAP, but it’s taking time.”

Mothball the grid
For the now-antiquated linear grid guides, time is about to run out. “We’ve found the existing navigation process is broken and grid guides aren’t working. That’s why we’ve embarked on our new UI initiative. We need to be efficient and get out of the way so customers can enjoy the content,” Pickelsimer concludes.

For next-gen navigation companies such as Hillcrest, which has built a navigational scheme sans the linear guide, it insists the time has come to chart a new course for customers to find content.

Andy Addis

“Fundamentally, the up/down, right/left theory isn’t viable. We’ve jettisoned that paradigm. About 67 percent of people want to browse, so search isn’t the answer. We enable the customer to visually browse thousands of choices with a scroll wheel, and if consumers can’t find content, they’ll either settle or get sick of paying. Content navigation is a significant issue,” says Andy Addis, executive vice president of marketing for Hillcrest Labs.

Customers can view 125 “packets” on screen at the same time, Addis explains. Then, they can zoom in by moving a cursor. “We’ve created an interface that optimizes a pointer-based device, zoomable interface called Freespace. It’s a seamless, fluid browsing experience. If consumers can’t readily find stuff, they can’t derive value from the service,” he maintains.

The grid system for guides, most experts say, needs to eventually be moth-balled. Yet replacing it with a simple to use, efficient and compelling navigational scheme is no slam dunk.

“Grids are too unwieldy and that system has broken down, so a more personalized, simple navigational system is needed,” says Rich Cusick, senior vice president and GM of digital medial for Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.

MyTVGuide is the company’s next-gen navigational system, and clearly a move away from the old grid approach. “It provides greater personalization, is more sophisticated, yet simple and recommendation focused. It’s only on the Web now, but we’ll roll it out to other venues by year’s end,” Cusick says.

Finding a functional and consistent means to navigate through content across several different platforms such as TV, broadband and mobile, is a top priority for not only service providers, but content navigation companies such as Gemstar-TV Guide. “We’re focusing on broadband video and mobile service guidance, with video content on mobile phones. But it’s very different than traditional TV,” Cusick admits.

Different indeed, especially for service providers such as Time Warner Cable (TWC), whose customers, not surprisingly, are telling the company they want to find more content with fewer clicks.

Peter Stern

“They really need help to find content. We provide a variety of tools, like cover art, and they have the ability to go deep at any time. The guide is evolving into true personalization, and ultimately all of these innovations will come together,” says Peter Stern, executive vice president of product management for Time Warner Cable.

TWC’s Enhanced TV menu extends the linear channel/browse approach, yet the company continues its search for an efficient, simple navigational system. “Our challenge is to deliver easy, intuitive, comprehensive navigation that can ride on top of set-top boxes, and find a balance of supporting legacy platforms while developing new ones,” he says.

Digeo, which provides a navigational system based on a find/search/aggregate content technology, is another company extolling the virtues of a non-grid system. “You can’t scale, and the grid system is not necessary. The landscape is changing and cable has an opportunity to address the new world beyond video, including the retail market, links from the PC to TV and mobile phones. Technically, these cross-platform approaches can be done. But they must be scaled appropriately and with continuity,” says Mike Fidler, CEO of Digeo Inc.

Graphics, Fidler adds, are becoming an important component to next-gen content navigation. “There is a shift in the market with the availability of flat-screen HDTVs. If you’re looking for content, and it is graphically color-coded, there is a direct correlation to the economic metric.” Digeo recently rolled out two new products in its Moxi line, including Moxi Menu, which integrates VOD and PPV content in search results and predefined content filter cards, the company announced.

Graphics and a greater number of choices
on one screen are emerging as top content-finding strategies.

MicrosoftTV is in the content navigation mix as well, having administered several usability tests, which have tracked consumers’ thoughts about navigating content, even down to measuring eye movements.

“We’ve found simplicity to be the top requirement among customers. And we’re starting to see a tie-in from the Internet to TV. Over time, we’ll see those capabilities come to TV, like recommendation engines,” says Jerry Beresh, senior business development manager for MicrosoftTV.

Mobile devices
with content are on
the horizon

Discovering new content is also high on the company’s radar screen, Beresh says. “How you navigate through the content libraries and monetize it is a big issue. We believe the enhanced ability to discover new content, such as quick links between actors and pieces of content, is evolving. A guide might do things like send recommendations to a buddy list, and graphics are important. But you can’t move users overnight. That’s too much change.”

Navigation for IPTV
Changing content navigation to include the boundless capacity of IPTV is another sea change of sorts, and is sparking IP-based service providers such as Surewest to improve their guides.

“There’s so much content, so it’s a real challenge, especially on TV. We’re working to come up with a more intuitive EPG, like on a computer to search by title, genre, characters. We spend a lot of time figuring out what customers want and how to make it easier for them to find content,” says Haavard Sterri, executive director of marketing for Surewest.

Surewest, Sterri says, is building a new navigational platform designed specifically for the company’s IP-based network. “We’re looking at the connections between the TV, computers and wireless phones because of the IP platform and our FTTH network,” he says.

The company is also looking at advancing its current navigational scheme. “We’re working on a guide to bring up content as a spread sheet on one page, using a cursor, with 6-24 thumbnail sketches. That’s the look we’re trying to get,” says Jaime Montes, product marketing manager for Surewest.

Sound may be the next greatest advance in content navigation, however. “We did an experiment with Agile TV using a voice activation engine. By saying ‘sports,’ for example, the content would be put up on a screen. We’re also looking at putting Internet content on TV and we can expect box art and graphics to improve the perception of quality of content. We’re being asked in RFPs and RFIs to upgrade search engines,” says Phil Simpson, director of product marketing for On Demand solutions at SeaChange International Inc.

Kip Compton

Cisco Systems is also seeing a surge in content navigation interest. “It’s being driven by more on-demand content and new VOD systems, and the technical issues are being eliminated. Some are employing 3-D graphics and pointing devices. We’re spending lots of time looking at those technologies and other navigational approaches. And as more devices show up to connect the Internet with TV, even premium content, we’re looking at how to blend those two experiences. It’s on everyone’s radar screen,” says Kip Compton, senior director and GM of the video and content networking business unit for Cisco Systems.

Navigating the rising sea of content is getting the attention of cable networks such as Oxygen as well. Just how viewers find networks such as Oxygen, and how the networks cut through the clutter to navigate viewers to their programming, is an on-going challenge.

“As simple as barker channels are, they are very helpful and drive awareness. But now, multi-platform is our world as we extend content to several platforms. We are always asking affiliates how we can help the navigation process,” says Mary Murano, president of distribution for Oxygen.

One way is to re-evaluate the very premise of content navigation. “We took a step back with our user interface and found the navigation process was broken and the grid guide didn’t work. We wanted to find a better way to present content that was intuitive. We can’t rely on the younger generation just adopting it. We have to provide paradigms they’re comfortable with,” maintains Pickelsimer.

And those paradigms better include a content navigation process that’s simple, efficient and compelling. Says Hess of Comcast: “If anyone turns off the TV and says nothing is on, we’ve failed. We don’t want that.”

Hillcrest Labs' scroll wheel
Hillcrest Labs' scroll wheel allows customers to
view thousands of choices, an emerging strategy among content providers.

Hold the pix
What customers do want, concludes Paxton, is “information, text, boxed format. They don’t want to see a picture of Leonardo DeCaprio. Maybe in the future, but now they don’t expect graphics in their guides. They want quick access and user-friendliness. But guides aren’t there yet.”

Once they get there, however, most experts agree consumers will not only search and find content more quickly, but also discover new content they never knew existed. And that, service providers maintain, leads to greater usage and ultimately to a spike in the bottom line.