How to create a revolutionary TV experience

VP, Design
London

There’s no question that we’re in the midst of a major historical shift: from watching TV to watching video, including TV shows and movies, more and more on the Internet or mobile devices. Simply put, people (millions, in fact) are increasingly shifting their attention away from traditional TV to more flexible video-on-demand (VOD) services, such as Netflix, LOVEFiLM, blinkbox or Hulu, to satisfy their entertainment needs.

On the surface, the endless supply of video choice and content – as well as full control – that accompanies VOD services sounds great. Who wouldn’t want the freedom to choose any piece of content to watch at anytime, on any device? But contrary to what most people might expect, VOD services to date have failed to create a truly great viewing experience for consumers. That’s because too many companies ran too far forward with on demand, anytime anywhere, without a true consideration for what makes a good user experience.

Many have declared that TV as we knew it is dead, but a closer look at the traditional TV experience model reveals a tremendous untapped opportunity for VOD services and other media companies to borrow the very best elements from it, and vice versa. Both have the ability to create a truly revolutionary TV-like experience of tomorrow – one that incorporates the feel of traditional curated linear TV with the control and personalization offered by digital platforms.

On demand services are just too demanding

Netflix, a VOD market leader with 40 million subscribers globally, offers value for money and unique content, but the experience of using Netflix is far from ideal. Similar to shopping on Amazon, you are forced to search and browse hundreds of titles to find something to watch. Even when you finish watching a program, you are immediately forced back into “hunting” for the next piece of content – resulting in a very fragmented experience (although Netflix addressed this issue by providing the option for ‘Continuous Play’ when an episode finishes, which helps).

Even so, it still requires effort and an analytical frame of mind, which results in a lean-forward experience, which is the antithesis of the lean-back, relaxing experience most consumers want from TV. Even with a sophisticated recommendation engine, the Netflix experience doesn’t feel very relaxing. And it’s not alone. Nearly every VOD company out there has copied Netflix’s model – meaning, most are just too demanding to ever be a great TV replacement.

Traditional TV, on the other hand, creates a better experience for viewers because of its linear nature. Content is arranged back-to-back for infinite play-through, so when a program finishes the next one starts automatically – no action required. TV is time sensitive – programs are curated to work together thematically, based on the time of day and day of the week. So if it’s a Sunday afternoon, the program line up will be very different from a Friday night. And, when you switch on a TV, you are immediately immersed in the content. It’s playing by default. This allows you to instantly relax, rather than searching through a vast library for something to watch.

Yet, even though the experience of traditional TV feels more relaxing, it does has one major drawback: it doesn’t feel personal.

TV has always tried to appeal to the masses, while on demand services have invested heavily in sophisticated recommendation engines to provide the ideal content for a single viewer. TV catch-up services have started to make the experience feel more personal by tracking your viewing history but it has some room for improvement. In addition, it’s worth remembering that people still like to watch content with other people, in groups. So it seems logical then that in the future, recommendation engines should merge people’s profiles when they watch together – accommodating both the individual and the group.

Blending the best of both worlds

Clearly there is a lot of room for improvement – on both sides. So who is likely to win the race?

There is a significant untapped business opportunity for both media and tech companies to re-imagine the TV experience, regardless of whether the company is a broadcaster, cable or satellite provider, or an on demand service. Whoever leverages technology to simplify the experience, makes it feel lean-back and relaxing, and dials up the personalization for the individual as well as the group will be successful. It’s not about one or the other, but about taking the best qualities of both worlds and creating something better.