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March 16th, 2007 at 7:27 am

The Video Search Gold Rush

Michael Rogers: Over half of all online users have already watched video on the Web, and it’s still early days, as cable channels and television networks, along with millions of individuals, rush to upload vast quantities of content onto literally thousands of different Web sites. So the question arises: how do you find what you want in the midst of this utterly disorganized video bonanza?  Clearly, the entrepreneur who comes up with the video equivalent of Google would be in a very powerful position. Digital pundits put the question this way: Who will be the TV Guide of the Internet?


Michael Rogers

The TV Guide goal is ambitious: during the magazine’s heyday in the 70s it was the largest circulation magazine in the world. Back then TV Guide seemed to be on every coffee table in the country, and it made its founder, Walter Annenberg, a billionaire who went on to be knighted in Great Britain.  Not bad for a magazine whose primary reason to exist was describing where and when to find “The Brady Bunch” — which, in an era of only three television networks, was not exactly rocket science.

As cable and then satellite choices began to proliferate in the 80s, TV Guide struggled to keep up with a myriad of increasingly-complex local editions — but ultimately diversified into the “interactive programming guides” that are now provided in the on-screen navigation for most cable and satellite systems.

While TV Guide magazine continues, with less than a sixth of its 70s circulation, the bulk of the company’s revenue now comes from various versions of the on-screen guides (which now reach far more people than the magazine ever did). Now, of course, arrives the next challenge: a world of Internet video that dwarfs even the 500 channel universe of cable and satellite. Next month, TV Guide plans to take that on as well.

It’s good timing: on the Internet, video search leadership is still up for grabs. That’s because searching video is fundamentally different than searching text: the content is sound and images, and there’s no simple way to automatically search that combination. At present, the easiest solution is to look at the text description attached to the video file by its creator — its so-called metadata. But the quality and format of metadata can vary, and sometimes video clips carry none at all. The next step up is to have viewers themselves “tag” videos once they’ve watched them. But user-generated tags can be unreliable. They require constant and diligent user participation and the quality may vary wildly — starting with elements as simple as spelling (uh, is it “Hilton” or “Hillton”?).

Newer video search companies have come up with some interesting alternatives. Blinkx, one of the current leaders, uses automatic speech recognition to “listen” to each video’s soundtrack and pull out key words that it can search — a notion that was initially used some years ago to search television news videos by “reading” their closed captioning information. A competitor, Truveo (now owned by AOL), looks at all the content on the page surrounding the video to get a better sense of what the video itself is about. And there are a dozen other start-ups in various stages working on variations of those approaches, such as looking at which other Web pages point to a video.

Out on the horizon, researchers are working on teaching computers how to actually recognize images and perform what’s called “scene summarization,” so that future search engines can both watch and listen to videos to determine the content. But that’s tricky indeed.  The first implementations will probably be limited to some subset of images: celebrity faces, for example (thus eliminating the need to know how to spell “Hilton”) or perhaps specific merchandise (“Show me coffee tables that look like this one”).

Regardless of which site you use, current video search is still hit-and-miss: results tend to include videos of radically varying content and quality. Search for “American Idol” and you may well come up with several dozen amateur “American Idol” satires before you actually get to a real clip from the show. (And then some of those actual clips may turn out to be amateur uploads onto YouTube, of dubious video and audio quality.) In other cases (such as Academy Awards footage a few weeks ago) the links may not work at all: after they were posted, the content owners insisted that the clips be taken down for copyright reasons.

Thus it’s not surprising that TV Guide thinks that they have a shot at being the TV Guide of the Internet. In April they will release their version of video search, with several clear distinctions from the existing competitors. The majority of searchers are still looking for professional entertainment videos, according to their research. So for starters, TV Guide will only search professionally-produced entertainment and news content, initially on about fifty different sites.  Moreover, they will augment their automatic search functions with a staff of human editors who will organize content and make recommendations (although site will also offer a “most-viewed” function as well).

In its beta version, the result is a clean interface that offers very easy searching of most popular Internet videos, with ways to easily select short clips versus full episodes, or paid versus free content. Do the “American Idol” search mentioned above and your results are all actually American Idol video content in various shapes and sizes, linked from the original sources. The presentation is more ordered and easily scanned than existing search engines.

More importantly, TV Guide’s search engine also supports browsing when you don’t have an exact search term in mind: you can choose specific genres — drama, comedy, adventure, sci-fi, pets, fashion, travel and about fifteen others — and see choices in a grid-like presentation.  What you don’t get, of course, are the Diet-Coke-and-mentos viral videos, although the TV Guide developers say they will continue to add new kinds of video content in the future. That will be crucial: as more and better “straight-to-Web” video appears, TV Guide will need to rapidly widen its search choices.

So will TV Guide become the TV Guide of the Internet?  It’s far too soon to say. But when you look ahead, the Internet and conventional television will increasingly merge in the living room.  Television delivered via Internet protocol (IPTV) will look more like the Internet; the Internet, streamed directly to the big screen, will look more like conventional television. In another few years, some families may not always be sure whether what they’re watching on the big screen is the Internet or television. It may prove then that TV Guide’s current strong relationships with the networks and cable channels will merge nicely with an ability to also organize the Web.

But that’s far off. What’s most interesting for now is that the TV Guide search model challenges one of the fundamental truisms about the Internet — that the “long tail,” composed of a million pieces of specialized and often user-generated content, is where the real value is. The TV Guide approach says that regardless of the means of distribution, a whole lot of people will continue to be interested in the same content, and that much of that will still be professionally-made. 

That mirrors a current debate across all media, from journalism to pop music, about the relative value of big versus small, professional versus amateur content, and editorial control versus user-generated choices. Like most debates about the future of the Internet, neither side is likely to be altogether right. The Internet is really a meta-medium, capable of functioning in various ways, and it will probably prove to support both mass-market content and the tiny independent. If the TV Guide search engine takes off, it will suggest that sometimes by narrowing choices you can actually create more value for the consumer.



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