On Human Curation

Algorithms are clever, but they don’t care how we feel (yet).

A wise friend of mine once said ‘No amount of technology can make a bad story good, but, the right application of technology can make a good story great.’

He’s right. As the TV landscape gets increasingly fragmented, the key element that has remained unchanged since moving pictures started beaming into our living rooms, is story. With new technology comes lots of interesting new ways to tell stories, from user generated content through to platform tailored news and interactive TV, this is still a huge area of development.

Technologists and content creators alike are in agreement that it is the craft of storytelling that makes great shows great.

There is another part to the story, however, that advancements in technology have underserved.

In linear TV, a wider story has been crafted over the last 50 years and passed down from generation to generation. Enter the scheduler — a storyteller that takes multiple individual stories and weaves them into a daily tale to entice and delight their audience. They start by observing audience habits, get to know the rhythm of their daily lives, and try to understand how their audience might be feeling at different times during the day.

I know this, because I used to be a linear TV scheduler for a live sports channel. With limited audience knowledge (TV ratings suck), a time sensitive catalogue with various rights windows and an abundance of live events that could overrun or completely disappear at any time, I worked hard to create an experience that would delight viewers and keep them watching. I cared deeply about our audience and every month I tried to learn more about them to make their experience an even better fit for their lifestyles.

With huge advancements in non linear TV, the art of the scheduler is becoming less relevant. Doctor Who showrunner (and story wizard) Steven Moffat recently said in an interview ‘My children don’t think in terms of schedule on television at all, even with “Doctor Who,” which their dad makes. To the next generation, they no longer watch television when they are supposed to any more than they would allow the bookcase to tell them when they can read.’

But the bookcase is important too. If it’s locked, or covered in dust, or overspilling with literature, it’s difficult to find the right story.

A good scheduler puts as much thought into the journey of the audience in primetime viewing, as a good chef puts into creating a restaurant menu.

One of the issues of having all the content at our fingertips at any time, is discovery. It’s so difficult to decide, what do I want to watch now? What do I want to watch next?

Discovery and recommendations on OTT platforms has been largely automated using algorithms, which are good to a degree, but they are limited.

What we need is something smarter than that, which actually knows and cares what I want to watch next, knows what I’ve already seen, and how I might be feeling at that moment. There are two potential solutions coming down the track.

One is the Google solution which knows me and my habits across all my devices. As time goes on it will know more and more about me, and will be able to use this deep knowledge of me, to recommend what I want to watch next. For example, if I’m home alone, I may want to watch something different (Airplane!) than if I’m home with my husband (Terminator).

The other solution, is ‘human curation’. I smile when I hear the phrase. It sounds like something you might hear in an ultra hipster pop up restaurant during a symposium of cheese makers. Apple Music are using it. Twitter, Snapchat, everyone’s at it. It makes complete sense to me that Apple will bring something like this to their TV service when it launches, to ensure they rise to the top of the OTT game.

The future of TV probably lies somewhere between the two approaches. Algorithms are clever, but they don’t care how we feel (yet).

Whoever is wise enough to learn from linear TV schedulers and apply that skill to OTT will create a winning experience that flows, entertains, surprises and delights individual viewers at scale.

After all, great user experience starts with the user.

First published in Rerun, Axonista’s weekly digest about the future of TV.

(Nerd points for anyone who can guess where the cover image came from — tweet answers to @clairemchugh)

Claire is CEO of Axonista, where we’re leading the charge into the future of interactive television. We work with digital innovators like QVC, AOL, Viacom and The QYOU. Talk to us about making your future of TV plans a reality.

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