Content guides rethought

They should say how a movie will make us feel

Earlier this week I spoke to execs from company that has pacted to make hundreds of little-seen movies available for streaming VOD. The execs I spoke to were very excited about this “long tail” play.

Me, not so much.

Instead, I flashed back to some of the things that were supposed to impress me at January’s Consumer Electronics Show but didn’t.

Lots of companies were pitching advanced TV interfaces and “discoverability”: All the content — movies, TV, streaming services, DVR, YouTube video, home movies on Facebook, whatever — in a single onscreen guide. Generally these next-gen guides offer search by genre, keywords or cast and more. They all looked beautiful — certainly prettier than the U-verse guide I get today.

But I think everybody is getting this “discoverability” thing fundamentally wrong. They’re making better and better looking guides that do a worse and worse job as we get access to more and more content.

For starters, the common guide categories don’t match up well with how we pick what we watch. I’ve never seen a guide sort by length, for example. Yet for most of us, how much time we have has a lot to do with what we watch. Sometimes I have 15 minutes while I’m waiting to go out: perfect for YouTube. Sometimes I have 90 minutes at night after my daughter goes to bed; then it’s time for DVR or channel surfing.

If you’re like me, your channel-surfing experience is often something like this: Scroll the guide or flip channels, try a show, move on after a few minutes because it’s not interesting enough or you’re not in the mood, repeat until defeated. Not in the mood: That’s the biggest thing these guide offerings are overlooking.

I’ve been hearing for a while from cutting-edge thinkers about how people actually use entertainment to alter their moods. We all do it, they say, often consciously.

Seen from this angle, entertainment options are a selection of psychoactive drugs. That’s more than a metaphor, by the way; MIT’s Tod Machover has talked about a future of “personal music” written to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s, strokes or other brain disorders.

It’s been observed that this makes the entire entertainment industry a drug lab and everybody in it drug pushers. (I’ve decided to embrace that idea and become the Tony Montana of Variety writers.) That would help explain the consumer craving for Apple’s addictive mobile devices. Whatever we might be feeling, wherever we’re feeling it, if we want to feel different, there’s an app for that.

But that also explains why surfing can be so frustrating. Often people aren’t really looking for something that can be summarized in a keyword. We’re jonesing for a feeling, even if it’s just that comfortable “vegging out” sensation. And no video interface I’ve seen is even trying to organize content by how it makes you feel.

Some of these guide services aim to leverage social networking, such as recommendations from your Facebook friends. Why not take that a step further and create a tag cloud? Then the guide listing for a movie might say “scary,” “funny,” “sad” and “uplifting.” That’s more useful than showing, say, a “sci-fi” genre; one guide I saw listed “Frankenstein,” “Blade Runner” and “Weird Science” side by side under that heading.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am convinced that until somebody reinvents these content search tools, viewers will stay frustrated and “long tail” VOD ventures will stay short on revenue.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email david.cohen@variety.com

Bits & Bytes

ESPN 3D, which has exclusively featured live events so far, will air its first-ever 3D feature piece today at 6:40 p.m. ET. “The Great Throwdini” is about the world’s fastest knife thrower. Piece debuts in 3D and will air in 2D high-def on April 12 on the season preem of “E:60.” … Kerner Optical is using its own Kerner 3D camera rigs to shoot practical effects for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”… The 4A’s and BlackArrow have announced the Advanced Advertising Media Project, a research initiative aimed at measuring the impact of advanced advertising within free VOD programming. Participants include A&E, CBS, Comcast, Discovery Communications, Rainbow Media and others … Modus FX provided 47 vfx shots for “Jane Eyre,” including several sequences where it changed the season and shots that digitally altered the environment to create the burned-out Thornfield Castle. … Cineplex Entertainment has deployed the new Christie CP4200 projection platform. The Galaxy Cinemas Waterloo became the first to screen in 4K DLP. … Glendale Studios has opened a digital post facility … Quality assurance tester Testronic Labs has passed two major milestones, having completed its 5,500th Blu-ray title and its 75th 3D title. …

Want to comment or suggest a column topic? Email david.cohen@variety.com