Sky not liking Big Data for the small screen

Image: Stockfresh

6 May 2015

Niall Kitson portraitTwo years ago I wrote that the success of 3D broadcasting relied on three factors: convenience, cost and content. At the time I said 3D TV sets were expensive, added rather than solved problems for the user and had little to watch on them bar a few trial channels.

With Sky finally discontinuing its 3D service a few weeks ago – a full two years after the BBC and ESPN gave up on it – the debate over the future of television has moved on to broad strands: how we watch TV and what we watch on it.

Taking these in order, how we watch TV branches out in two directions: screens and receivers. In screens, that means a timeline for the adoption of 4K and even 8K technology. Resolution isn’t a battlefield, it’s an evolving standard. Will 3D rise again? Some pundits maintain it will as soon as the problem of glasses is solved. I refer you to the points about cost and content that sank it two years ago. I won’t even get into the debate over screen size, curves and where exactly the sweet spot is.

After screens comes the vector/receiver you choose for how you watch your favourite shows. It’s a long time since linear terrestrial broadcasting was king, now you have broadcast (terrestrial or subscription), DVR, download (purchase or pirate), streaming (subscription, free catch-up, pirate) and hard copy sales (legal or… you get the idea).

On the second point of what we watch, the advent of Big Data analytics has introduced a new debate as online services analyse their subscribers’ viewing habits to find out what they like and give them more of it.

This model that has served Netflix well with prestige shows like the Emmy-award winning House of Cards and Orange is the New Black sitting beside shows with a strong following like The Killing (US) and Trailer Park Boys that lost their network backing, and a mess of cheap-to-make comedy specials and documentaries. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings visited Ireland to launch the service in 2012 he spoke about competing with Sky Atlantic over Sky Movies. Given Netflix’s TV catalogue is far superior to its movie offering that’s a smart move and one validated by quality product.

Risk averse
But Netflix’s technology-based approach has drawn some flak from broadcasters. Speaking to news website Cnet, Sky’s group director of strategy Mai Fyfield backed the old-school approach to commissioning based on gut instinct and validated by publicly available viewership numbers. “I don’t know if anybody is watching Marco Polo, do you?” she asked.

Fyfield mightn’t know but Netflix sure does and it isn’t telling. Independent market research company Luth Research, though, has some idea. Its poll of 2,500 US subscribers found that while Marvel’s Daredevil was well-received, Marco Polo and Bloodline have struggled to find their audience. Still, all three have been renewed for a second series.

It’s hard to find sympathy with Fyfield’s position. While HBO ushered in the golden age of the showrunner with a singular vision and creative control, the barometer of whether a series will be kept on remains with sponsors. HBO solved this problem through subscriptions and practically creating a market for DVD sales. Sky deals with this problem by relying on imports and a smattering of its own productions. Original drama is expensive to produce, so what if a channel/service uses data to predict what kind of content will retain subscribers and prevent churn. Both methods have merit. Like Game of Thrones? You’ll love Marco Polo. Miss Longmire? We’ve picked it up.

You can be sure Fyfield’s comments will provoke some soul-searching at Sky as competition from Amazon and even Bittorrent hoovers up more airtime and bandwidth. As Fyfield admitted: “We have data coming out of our ears but we don’t use a lot of it.” Expect that position to change.

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