When All Content Is Personalized, Who Needs TV Networks? - 12/18/2010

The world has been a-buzz with news focused on making the next-generation of viewing experiences more personalized. But recent moves by companies like Netflix, Facebook and Comcast could sap some of the power of media companies that create today’s TV programming.

Over the last week, we’ve seen:

In all these cases, one thing is clear: The world is gradually moving toward on-demand viewing based on personalized recommendations. But in a world where viewers choose what to watch based on their own personal interests, what happens to the gatekeepers who previously had toiled to make sure people tuned in to a certain show at a certain time?

We’re already seeing the erosion of programmers’ influence in the way viewers watch TV through DVRs and online, with some shows getting nearly 40 percent of their viewers after a show airs. More than 5.5 million viewers of ABC hit Modern Family, for instance, watch the show on-demand or on their DVRs. It’s not as important today that a show has a particular time slot when so many of its viewers aren’t actually watching it live.

Personalizing recommendations, and allowing for new means of content discovery, takes that one step further. When content is discovered, through recommendation engines or by other means, it doesn’t matter to the user who made the show, what channel it’s on, or even whether it’s new or not. Perhaps the best example of this comes from Netflix’s recommendations engine: its streaming service doesn’t thrive because it offers users the hottest new releases, but because it consistently serves up content that is relevant to the user.

For users, the result is a steady stream of new and fresh content, and also content that’s more relevant and engaging than what one might find by purely channel surfing. And for content creators — especially independent content creators — personalized recommendations serve as a way to level the playing field. No longer does it matter whether a show appeared on broadcast, cable or online; the only factor that matters is whether or not a user might be inclined to watch it.

But for programmers — especially those at big media companies — the democratization and personalization of content is a direct threat to their business models. The ability to program a show lineup becomes less important when lead-ins are out of the control of the network. When a fan of a show like the U.S. version of The Office is recommended episodes of British comedy The IT Crowd, it takes away NBC’s ability to control and aggregate audiences in a way that’s necessary for the ad dollars it depends on.

So what’s the future of network programming, and how do media companies reach an audience that isn’t tuning in to a certain channel at a certain time? How do they get audiences to watch their shows, when an algorithm is in control of the recommendations?

In a personalized world, there will be more emphasis on quality of content, certainly, and niche content and the long tail will have its time to shine. But there will also be a place for sponsored placement, of the sort we already see on YouTube, for catching the user’s eye. The question is if that kind of placement will be enough to capture new audiences that otherwise might not tune in.

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