The year was 1941 when the age of commercial television began. It was in that same year that one New York area TV station – WNBT – had the foresight to print the first TV guide, known as a “Program Card,” to distribute to local TV owners. Though it would be another two decades or so until TV consolidated into the mass media we know of today, and not until 1981 that the first Electronic Program Guide (EPG) service would be available to consumers, this small paper piece of TV history already contained a warning about an issue that has remained until present day: “All programs subject to change without notice.”
We’ve come to accept that events broadcasted “live” will vary their beginning and end times – or maybe never make it to air. We can understand when paper guides printed days in advance are unreliable. But what prevents online TV guides from being accurate?
Hedging with live events
The prime example here is sporting events. We know when events start but we cannot be sure about when some of them will end due to the nature of the competition (e.g. tennis, cycling). In some cases, TV schedulers take this potential delay into consideration by adding padding programming after the event that can absorb the delay generated by the live event. If the padding is missing, the delay will have a trickle down effect on the programming for the rest of the day.
The ratings chess match
TV scheduling is a strategy game that depends not only on the programming goals of each channel but also on the programming of competitor channels. It’s during the primetime of major channels that this game reaches its climax and can turn into a chess match, where channels need to protect their king (highlight content) or attack another channel’s king.
Normally one of the first pawns to be sacrificed is sticking to scheduled times. In some cases, schedulers will avoid overlapping the beginning of a show with the end of an established and successful show or event in a competing channel. If that hit show runs over its time slot, programmes in other channels will be delayed to avoid a collusion that will impact its ratings.
Channels can also use their most successful content as a weapon against powerful premieres in other stations, aiming for that clash in content. Once the competitor’s programme has started before the end of your content, viewers will be less likely to switch to something that has already started.
Outdated data means delays
It usually goes unnoticed, but having an EPG in place with all its data normally requires the collaboration of several companies. Each broadcaster elaborates their own EPG with their own formats. There are then big metadata aggregators in charge of compiling and standardizing this information, who send it to TV operators (among other players.) This transfer of information that takes place between a broadcaster updating its EPG until it’s visible for the user is not instant, as it requires time to ingest, process and deliver the information among the different actors. Things can go wrong, delays can happen, information can be sent too late to be processed… all have the same outcome: the EPG available to the users becomes outdated and programmes start to deviate from their scheduled time.
Arbitrary time slots
Take a look at the EPG of any channel and you’ll see that most shows are scheduled at round times, where in general the smallest unit is five minutes. We are used to having meetings, appointments and events scheduled at round times for one simple reason: they are easier to remember. However, the length of programmes are far from round, making the task of fitting programming into nice and round timeslots challenging.
Ad breaks, and particularly content promotions, are used to make the adjustments, but it’s very difficult to maintain for the full schedule, especially if we consider some of the factors mentioned before. In the best cases, the resulting EPG can be a close enough schedule, with up to a couple of minutes deviation, but in others it can look more like rough guide.
In the era of video on-demand we have been conditioned to hit play and watch our programme begin immediately. As viewers are increasingly shifting away from live TV to catch-up TV, a new problem arises for many TV operators that need to base their catch-up services on EPG times. Hitting the play button in this scenario results in videos starting with a ton of ads, the end of the previous programme, a totally different show, or in some cases the start of the programme we wanted to watch. This uncertain output can drive viewers away from this functionality to ultimately look for content to watch elsewhere.
While broadcasters can use various technical systems to signal more accurate start times, they are often inconsistently available across channels. Using Artificial Intelligence to understand what is inside video, Media Distillery can detect, in real-time, visual cues that mark the beginning and the end of a programme, thanks to our EPG Correction solution. It means that the scheduled programme start and end time can be automatically updated with the actual programme start and end time based on observed features in the channel as broadcast. This approach has already been applied successfully by global video service providers to deliver a smarter programme guide.
Therefore, the smarter start and end times enabled by Media Distillery enhance the viewing experience and offer a solution to a source of viewer frustration that has been a problem ever since the early days of home video recording. While there may be alternative technical solutions to improving the metadata in the programmes as transmitted, this requires the technical co-operation of multiple broadcast channels. By using Artificial Intelligence to analyse the channels as they are actually transmitted, television and video service providers are enabled to improve the experience so it is consistent across multiple channels.