Can Web people and TV people really get along?

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I sure hope so - but there's work to be done first.

Last night I attended a networking event in London that looked at the issue of the Web on TV. There was a good deal of discussion about accessing TV content on PCs, mobiles and tablet computers, as well as traditional TVs of course. David Mercer from Strategy Analytics talked about some research they’d done asking people what is the one device they wouldn’t want to be without. Taken overall, just over half of the UK population said it was their TV. Limit the age range to the under 30s and the number of people who say the TV is their most important consumer electronics device falls to 25%. Following the event on Twitter, Vodafone’s Dan Appelquist commented “for my kids, BBC iPlayer + Apple TV = TV. They are (mostly) not interested in live TV.”

However, we mustn’t lose sight of the enormous legacy of scheduled TV. It remains the method by which most TV viewed. Switching on the telly shouldn’t automatically mean a consumer has to search through thousands of choices to find a programme to watch.

From my point of view, perhaps unsurprisingly, the key speaker was Anthony Rose. Having lead the development of the BBC iPlayer he’s now CTO of Project Canvas, now branded youview. Set for launch in Britain next year, this will be a single set top box (probably under-set box to be honest!) that will handle live TV plus catch up services, PayTV and includes a PVR. With this, and his experience of the BBC iPlayer in mind, Anthony used the term Augmented TV. Now that sounds promising.

The programme you’re watching may be part of a linear schedule or something you’ve specifically chosen, but if you can interact with it, either through the TV itself or another device in your hand/on your lap, then we’re making progress towards an integrated user experience. Programmes like BBC Question Time regularly trend on Twitter already.

However… depressingly, Web technologies were not generally discussed. There was a question from Steve Clee of Datpresenter about semantics and search which, worryingly, got an answer along the lines of “oh the standards aren’t in place for that yet, there’s a long way to go to get all that integrated." I hope I wasn’t the only one wanting to challenge that assertion (I mean, destroy that assertion) but the time for questions was limited and I didn’t have my say. Looking quickly at the tech specs around youview, there’s no reference to linking the metadata. Likewise, another UK IPTV service, SeeSaw, doesn’t appear to expose any metadata. And yet everyone in the room acknowledges the need for better search, better aggregation and greater personalisation, perhaps through social networking. Facebook and the IMDB’s use of RDFa in their Open Graph Protocol seems a shoe-in for this, but will the broadcasters embrace it?

And here we hit the big issue: DRM. I paraphrase Turner Broadcasting’s Casey Harwood only slightly by saying “it’s our content, we own the rights and we’ll do what we want with it.” Of course that’s true, and proper copyright control is important for the marketplace. That attitude appears at first sight to sit poorly with the Web which is built on the principle of openness and shared resources. However, the reality is that the Web has been a rather successful platform for eCommerce! It offers huge potential for augmented programming, search, recommendations and more – just the things the broadcasters want. But you’d never know it from this event.

Technically, TV and the Web are converging. Culturally and ideologically, it seems that we have a much bigger gap to navigate.

These are the kind of issues I look forward to developing at our forthcoming TPAC meeting in Lyon where I’ll be moderating a session with panellists including Daniel Park from Samsung and my colleague Kazuyuki Ashimura who lead the recent Web on TV workshop in Tokyo and who is now working on a new Interest Group Charter.

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