Searching for Something to Watch

Television and search are converging. For the inner couch potato in all of us, finding something good to watch could soon be more like online search, and less like browsing through a cable channel guide.

These thoughts started to fester a few weeks ago when I decided to ditch my $100 monthly cable service and go on an all-Hulu diet. Call it a digital fad diet — offering most of what I normally eat: “The Office,” “Family Guy,” and “The Daily Show.” The deal is sweetened when you throw in South Park Studios and streaming movies offered with my existing Netflix membership.

All told, 90 percent of network shows and 20 percent of cable shows are available for free online, according to Forrester Research. And don’t forget underground favorites like The Guild and Chad Vader – Day Shift Manager. TNS Media Intelligence meanwhile reports that 16 percent of households watch broadcast TV shows online.

Hulu boasts 145 million monthly video streams and 12 million unique visitors. This is greater than all network TV Web sites combined, according Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, who presented these figures at last week’s NewTeeVee Live show in San Francisco.

The one thing that keeps this from really busting out of the early adopter phase is the form factor. It essentially requires watching video while propped up at your desk. Or worse: the ultimate early adopter move — networking your computer to your TV. I’m calling it the last inch problem.

Next Year Is The Year (and Other Outrageous Prognostications)

This could all be changing (slowly). Early devices like AppleTV and Roku point the way, while January’s Consumer Electronics Show could offer a glimpse at more Internet-ready televisions and set-top boxes that bring the Web to the TV (not to be confused with the ill-conceived WebTV of a decade-ago). The problem is that these all carry different codecs and standards.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says forget about all of that — the answer is simple: bring the browser directly to the TV. The browser has already reached common ground for video, thanks to standards like Flash. The browser also has a short trip to the living room if you consider the devices already connected to your TV. Take gaming consoles: the PlayStation 3 already has a baked in Opera browser.

Combine that with the Wii-mote (Wii controller), which is revolutionizing the way we interface with digital entertainment. This could be the answer to the question of how we’ll go from a “clicker” on every coffee table to more of a pointer-based interactive TV experience.

What About Search?

Like with text, search will be the tool that ties it all together. We all know the challenges of effectively indexing video, but there are the ScanScouts, BlinkxTVs, and Everyzings of the world trying to crack the code.

Everyzing is doing this with an emphasis on good video SEO. It has real time speech-to-text processing that can return results that include video thumbnails and time markers that correlate to a given search term.

Put it all together and you can navigate the browser on your TV with your handy Wii-mote to search for that one episode of “Arrested Development” when Bob Loblaw launches his Law Blog.

But there’s still something missing from this equation — a keypad of some sort. Again, the answer could be waiting at CES, but I picture a touch screen built into a Wii-mote-like device. Oh yeah, something like that already exists.

Vision Quest

So will this all add up to a full-scale revolution that overturns the cable and satellite TV industries? Probably not. It’s a long shot with lots of moving parts. There’s also the argument that Hulu and its ilk are additive to network programming, that they broaden the overall touch points (read: audience).

A searchable backlog of video could make network-delivered episodic content more inviting by allowing users to catch up on missed shows, rather than leaving them completely lost (especially when watching “Lost”).

These are strong arguments, but we could also see some attrition for traditional television as we enter a period of stark consumer spending reductions. On the bright side, the economy could help materialize this vision (or one that’s equally egregious).

Consider that recessionary periods have spawned the biggest technological and communications revolutions of our time. Microsoft and the thin client computing came out of the early ’90s recession, followed by the beginnings of the Internet boom (and bust). Then Google and a flood of self-described Web 2.0 companies rose from those ashes.

Now, here we are again. And chances are that the next shift in how we get our content will materialize as we come out of this recession. For those already in the business of search, content delivery or advertising: look closely for entry points in the new media delivery model (or signs of what that model might be). The revolution will be televised.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies Chicago December 8-12 at the Chicago Hilton. The only major search marketing conference and expo in the Midwest will be packed with 60-plus sessions, multiple keynotes and Orion Strategy sessions, exhibitors, networking events, and more.

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