On Sept 29, the FCC delayed the future of search – deciding to not pass the set-top-box (STB) plan they had been working on since January. As with any pending regulation, various stakeholders converge with all sorts of interests. Perhaps underneath everything is the long-standing “digital divide” perspective – an effort to bring technology such as streaming TV to the masses. Congress has already mandated accessibility via the ADA. In its plan, the FCC would add a layer of economic parity through the elimination of STB rental fees. Progressive groups are pushing the free and open internet angle. Diversity has a role too, around programming choices from content makers with less funding or filmmakers of color and other minority communities.
The Content Ownership Fight
But it wasn’t search that led to the delay – it was the battle over content ownership. Players like Google wanted the original “unlock the box” plan, in which paid content would be required to be streamed to STBs thus opening the potential for Google or Apple to place their branding and features on top of the content. Cable companies and networks fought for the revised “ditch the box” plan of requiring content to be played through Apps. If ABC owned a show, you would watch it on ABC’s App, with their ads, their resolution, their closed captioning and more.
If you search for the new show “The Grand Tour” on your Apple TV, you can’t watch it because Amazon owns the show, and Amazon does not have an Apple TV App. Under the FCC’s plan, Amazon would have to make an App for every format – including Apple TV – which is a great benefit for consumers who are frustrated with these competitive restrictions.
The Search Fight
The less-considered battle on the horizon is around streaming TV search:
One of the biggest benefits consumers will see is integrated search. The rules would require all pay-TV providers to enable the ability for consumers to search for pay-TV content alongside other sources of content. Just type in the name of a movie, and a list will come up with all the places it is scheduled for broadcast and where it can be streamed (like Amazon Prime or Hulu).
Current streaming TV search isn’t very sophisticated, but there are aspects of integration already. Roku already offers up search results from multiple providers. Apple TV’s universal search is adding more sources to its mix, and Amazon features premium partner channel apps. But like the early days of the internet when websites were scarce, curating was a manual exercise with slight assists from technology. Right now, whether you use Apple, Roku, Fire TV or other STBs – or even Netflix and Hulu – content is limited to what they each provide through partnerships and relationships. It’s always been more about scrolling through curated lists of shows than true search.
The Role of Voice Search
The clunkiness of inputting text into a search box with your remote was probably the main hindrance to widespread adoption and usage of streaming TV search, but voice search is changing that. Every search has always had the potential to push past STB curations into deeper content, but only with voice can this be realized. This is the power and potential of streaming TV search. Voice search uses verbal inputs of text to both pull up results and activate things.
But voice search may not play well with integrated streaming TV search. If you ask Echo to play the latest Star Wars film, it will most likely know you’re talking about 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, but from which source will it cast to your Smart TV? Does Echo now have to say, “I can play ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ from your Amazon Prime account, but you can also watch it from the other providers on your screen,” and pull up a search result on the TV?
Sophisticated Search Results
So the real advantage for streaming TV search is the search results experience – because with more content mandated to appear for any search, more sophisticated ways of organizing and curating will be needed. If this sounds like search engines back in the 90s, it should. Advanced algorithms will be needed to find, access, sort, filter and rank – positioning current leaders like Google well since they’ve been ranking and curating videos over other content for years.
The big question here is whether any sophisticated search results experience can trump the existing habit to scroll and swipe our way through visual entertainment cards. Realistically, only a few major players are equipped technologically or financially to take on integrated streaming TV search – Google, Apple and Amazon and maybe Roku. One FCC Commissioner against all proposals is calling this the “Myth of Universal Search.” The real win however wouldn’t be simply owning search results, but also monetizing them.
Paid Ads While You Choose
Make no mistake, paid ads in streaming TV search results will happen. Whether you actively type or speak a search phrase or whether you open your device to the default “implied” results, there is real estate to plant an ad. Amazon is already placing featured premium channel upsells next to regular programming. Everyone will be clamoring for those top spots. In lieu of optimization, your meta data will be better found by search engine APIs (sound familiar SEOs?) and paid ads will be the preferred method for most.
Lots of opportunity exists here for innovation – visual search, algorithms, voice, recommendations, personalization, and ultimately ads. But only 1 major player – Google – has an existing ad network it could easily connect to streaming TV, and AdWords is precisely what made Google into an $85 billion dollar company.
Marketers should revel in this integrated search proposal that opens up a world of new criteria that could be optimized. STBs will now have their own SERPs, with paid content and free content. Whether there’s an obvious paid/free demarcation like Google does now, or something more hybrid remains to be seen. Ultimately this may portend that final frontier where TV’s aren’t for just watching, but are simply screens where everything happens.
Finally, here are 10 bold predictions for the future of streaming TV: