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Universal Search: The Future of Content Discovery

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In the digital age, content providers have been forced to adapt to the increasingly on-the-go lifestyles of consumers. This industry shift is demonstrated by the rise of Over-The-Top (OTT) and Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) services. As the density of online content increases consumers are consequently overloaded with choice, and as a result are struggling to find appealing content with ease.

In the 2016 Ericsson ConsumerLab TV and Media Report, it was revealed that the average person will spend 1.3 years of their life perusing the on-screen electronic program guide (EPG) in an effort to locate TV and entertainment content. The same report also found that Video on Demand (VOD) consumers spend a “frustrating” 45 per cent more time searching for programming, in comparison to their linear TV viewing counterparts. In tandem, 57% of consumers in this study say content discovery is critical when choosing a pay-TV service. 49% also say the mobility factor is important.

From these findings, it’s clear that not only is a better content discovery process needed across the board, the ability to find and access content across the multitude of mobile devices is key.

Enter universal search; a foundation for unifying content together from multiple, linear, and over the top (OTT) services.

Viewers’ frustrations are partly attributed to the inconvenience of switching between SVOD apps, such as Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube, to find content. In contrast, universal search provides a single point of entry.

The ability to quickly search across all available television content – live linear, OTT and VOD – paired with the ability to do that on any device, enables viewers to find suitable programming from many services in a single instance. But what if you only wanted to see services you were subscribed to? Theoretically, universal search should allow viewers to personalize content searches, which would then enable the option to see user-subscribed services only.

Universal search should also cut content search times significantly. But how could such a service be feasibly adjusted for mainstream suitability? From our perspective, this could include a time window, SD or HD quality, and pricing. Whether or not the content is free (which it could be on one service but not another), or has a price fixed to it, is certainly pertinent to the viewer.

The major dilemma for universal search platforms is the need to convince SVOD providers and content owners to become involved in such a vast project. Those who are adapting by developing OTT services (such as HBO, Sky, and CBS) will have to make some critical decisions – like whether or not they will open up their private data library to a universal search platform. Agreeing to be a part of a universal search platform could potentially lead to increased viewership and additional exposure. Otherwise, failure to leverage a historic opportunity like this might result in simply fading away. We must ask ourselves, is it worth the risk to keep the searchable content under lock and key, when a larger share of viewers could lead to great revenue streams and greater investment in content.

Ideally, universal search will present relevant TV content to the user with the option to be incredibly specific. For example; “I’m in the mood for a kids’ comedy about New York, and I’d like to watch it on my tablet.” A platform that has the right data and intelligence behind it will be able to display movies effectively as clean search results that fit into these specialized categories.

With this in mind, what exactly is available (and possible) in terms of universal search today?

There is actually a lot that we can do with unified content already. For example, a consumer can search for a program and instantly obtain where that program can be found across every platform, be that live or on demand. If they look for the 2008 movie ‘Iron Man’ on AT&T U-Verse, the exact time, date and channel should be displayed (e.g. 8 p.m., December 19 on STARZ). Additionally, potential streaming locations for ‘Iron Man’ (Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, AT&T VOD, etc.), with availability and pricing, can also be shown. And with a simple click-through, the content is then easily accessible.

However, there are some limitations associated with the universal search concept, such as the use of different data formats for output, and poor metadata quality from content providers. These factors may prompt reluctance from content providers who are considering getting involved, as they are put off by unpleasant visualizations of metadata, and losing control of data moving through various systems. Although such factors represent a threat to content providers, such issues are expected to be resolved with the evolution of broadcasting technology.

Metadata is one of the main ways that broadcasters can ensure they are using universal search to its full potential. The use of clean and consistent metadata allows data-driven services to properly distinguish and differentiate TV content – information such as seasons, series and episodes – so that if a viewer misses a show on linear TV, it can be easily found elsewhere, and they can be correctly notified.

Solid, robust metadata is key when it comes to bringing universal search to life. Without proper titles, names and a persistent ID system, confusion can occur across the queried services. For example, if someone searches for ‘The Rock’, the actor Dwayne Johnson and the 1996 action thriller starring Sean Connery should not get mixed up in the search results.

Furthermore, accurate imagery and other forms of rich media (trailers, etc.) assists in the discoverability of programming. This should help the consumer decide what to watch, with an interactive experience.

Through a combination of clever technology and cooperation with platforms and content providers, universal search will truly be a part of TV’s future. We are certainly starting to head in the right direction already, but clearly there is still much work to be done.


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