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What the future EPG looks like, including a place for a pseudo-linear Facebook channel

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The EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) remains the centrepiece of television content discovery and it is about to undergo a revolution, or at least a very important stage of evolution, based on analysis from the UK consulting firm Antenna Group. The company’s CEO Nigel Walley has been outlining the likely appearance of Facebook and Twitter ‘channels’ and a Netflix interactive barker ‘channel’ that is an app-launcher EPG slot (as already seen on some TV platforms including Virgin Media in the UK) but one that also displays promotional content (before you launch the full app) to entice people in.

This future EPG will have real linear channels listed that are delivered over broadcast networks (in SD, HD and UHD) and over IP (as unicast and multicast). This will give channel owners the freedom to migrate their services between delivery mechanisms depending on their unique economics and audience sizes. Walley predicts a collapse in the total number of services listed in the EPG, with major channel groups possibly listing their family of channel brands under one super-EPG slot.

This super-EPG slot acts as the gateway to a second layer of content discovery where all the group’s channels (and perhaps on-demand and short-form assets) are available. Alternatively, the super-slot could simply cascade the multiple group channel brands below it when you click on the EPG listing. And alongside all the great television brands and the increasingly video-centric social media giants, millennial-centric media companies like Twitch (eSports and gaming community) and VICE will be present to broaden the appeal of TV to youngsters.

As Walley made clear during one of Antenna Group’s insightful Antenna series of workshops recently, some of these changes are already underway. He pointed to BT’s YouView Pay TV platform as a near-complete example of how the lines between broadcast and IP distribution are blurring. The set-top boxes receive HD and SD broadcast (terrestrial) signals while the BT Sports channel is delivered as multicast IP, both in its HD and now 4K versions. There is unicast IP streaming too [the platform includes the catch-up services from major broadcasters plus Netflix (in SD, HD and 4K), among other things.]

“While the YouView EPG looks like a [normal] row of channels with their numbers, there are two kinds of over-the-air channel and different kinds of IP channels. To the consumer this is all invisible, as it should be,” Walley explains.

He noted that broadcasting is expensive and there are smaller channels who are already considering ‘dropping’ from SD broadcast to unicast delivery in order to improve their economics. “Lots of SD channels are doing the numbers today,” he claims. He thinks elite sports like horse racing and sailing, with high net-worth viewers and limited audience sizes, would be likely candidates for unicasting, as genre examples, but they rely on their platform operator partners making the IP delivery option available to them for linear streaming.

In his analysis of what the future EPG is going to look like, Walley predicted that there will be far fewer channels, partly because multichannel expansion was a blunt tool for giving viewers more control over their viewing. Now we have PVR, catch-up TV, VOD and on-demand box-sets there is certainly no need for linear channels that show us the same film every half an hour, for example.

He expects ongoing demand for the top general entertainment channels, lifestyle channels and long-tail channels within the EPG, but less requirement for the swathe of mid-EPG channels we see today. He believes the ideal model for navigation – although a hard-sell to platform operators – would give viewers the chance to enter a channel group universe and then navigate around all its channels without having to exit to the main (platform operator) EPG, possibly using a mini-EPG inside the linear channel you are currently viewing (when you click a remote-control button).

Netflix has already arrived in the EPG at various platform operators and Nigel Walley expects other new-to-TV brands to follow suit. “For Netflix, that is a high street real-estate play. If you want to be a proper retailer – and Netflix is HBO with a better IT department – you need a shop on the main high street where people find TV, which is still the EPG.”

There are other new(ish) television brands that will begin to appear in EPGs (albeit sometimes to launch apps), according to Walley and these should include Vevo, Twitch and VICE. In interviews with young consumers, Antenna Group found that they are not encountering the media brands that matter to them when they turn on a Pay TV service, so this development would help to remedy that.

[And if you are interested in how the appeal of traditional TV can be broadened, especially for youth audiences, check out this session at the forthcoming Connected TV World Summit: ‘Broadening the Appeal of Television’. Twitter (discussing Twitter Live Video), Vice Media and ESL Turtle Entertainment are presenting ahead of a debate on the subject chaired by Nigel Walley (with Twitter, BT and ProSiebenSat.1 among the panellists).

Perhaps the most significant change to the EPG, as forecast by Walley’s Antenna Group, is the arrival of social media giants as pseudo-channels with their own guide listings. He noted that social media is already impacting the EPG on some platforms, like EE TV in the UK where the ‘Watch with Twitter’ app means programme guide listings can be supported by real-time Twitter trending data. But this development is dwarfed by what will follow.

“Last year social media giants started to talk about being video-centric players and there is a sense that Facebook is a video media company.” He believes the company and Twitter are both interested in buying more professional video content and would then want to present that where large audiences are already found, on the television set, with the same ‘high street presence’ that Netflix is seeking.

At the Antenna Series workshop this week, Walley showed ‘The Starters Twitter Show’ to demonstrate the content trajectory of the social media company [which also live-streamed US election debates last year]. “This is a sports show, like Sky Sports News but about basketball.”

He suggested that Facebook could launch something that looks like a personalised linear channel, although in reality it would be a schedule of on-demand and some live video assets that are curated on-the-fly. “The system creates what will feel like a linear channel. You decide how much of the schedule is professional content and how much is pulled in from your Facebook feed.”

He showed how a schedule, if aimed at one person who is logged-in to Facebook, could show a sequence of their social videos, then a professional TV programme, then more social video assets. Given the way that an on-demand centric service provider like Amazon is now using the age-old concept of weekly release times for shows (e.g. The Grand Tour, released week-by-week), you could even leave part of the pseudo-linear schedule assigned for a linear-style show release.

Meanwhile, smartphones acting as beacons could tell a set-top box who is in the room and therefore work out the profile of a Facebook channel that needs to be presented. So if you are the only person present, the pseudo-linear channel is populated with content related to your profile, and if there are two of you, it could combine content from the two profiles.

Separate to this particular profiling requirement, Walley believes there is an important opportunity for platform operators to provide federated log-ins for all the video-centric apps and accounts that will make up the TV offer of the future. Thus your Pay TV operator could be given permission to sign you into broadcaster catch-up apps, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others, as required, exchanging all the necessary data.

Walley takes the television potential of Facebook and Twitter seriously and believes they will eventually be found alongside broadcasters in our EPGs, and increasingly compete with them. “In the future world everyone has linear and on-demand and everyone has some short-form and web and social and log-in accounts that interact with the main platform.

“There will be a similar collection of mechanisms through which people address the market. In 5-10 years’ time Facebook, Vevo, Vice, Netflix, ITV and Channel 4 [as examples from the UK broadcast world] will be in the same part of the [media] value chain.”

Walley believes that broadcast TV and the EPG will maintain their central roles in content discovery, and he argues that after a decade in which TV innovation was designed to drive people away from linear broadcast, innovation will start to drive them back there again. “If you want to see how that starts, the backwards EPG is a great piece of innovation that demonstrates what can be achieved around linear.”

Photo shows the ‘Watch with Twitter’ solution at EE TV.


Want to know more about the future shape of TV?

Connected TV World Summit, in London May 17-18, has sessions dedicated to user experience innovations, the future of aggregation, broadening the appeal of TV and new content horizons, among many other subjects. Full details about the conference can be found here.

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