The next age of discovery

There has been a lot of consolidation and retrenchment among second-screen, social TV startups lately, which could either be a sign of niche business reaching for critical mass, or one in critical condition, depending on which of my GigaOM colleagues you ask.

In his autopsy on the sector yesterday, Janko describes most standalone social TV apps as solution in search of a problem, and he singles out what he calls “the myth of discovery”:

In the age of binge-watching and serialized storytelling, discovery matters less and less. Sure, I may want to find a new show every now and then — but the commitment of time spent per show is so high that I don’t need to look for new content for weeks once I’ve settled on a few favorites.

Some may argue that most Americans simply don’t binge-watch. That may be true, but the “mainstream America doesn’t do that” argument goes both ways: Most Americans also happily use their cable company’s TV guide, and see no reason to trade it in for a fancy social TV iPad app.

That’s about right, as far as it goes. But I would argue that the problem with standalone discovery apps is not so much that they’re a solution in search of a problem but that they have yet to solve the real problem facing consumers, which is more one of access than of discovery.

Most people may know what they want to watch when they sit down in front of the TV, and may even know where to find it. But there are still pretty high walls between pay-TV and OTT platforms and the content that resides on each. Discovery apps to date have tried to paper over those divisions without actually solving the problem.

Discovery, whether via social graph, expert curation, recommendation algorithm or other means, can’t really add meaningful vale to the experience of watching TV until it’s possible to move seamlessly among content sources. Call it: the input gap. Once you have to start switching remotes, and switching inputs, and changing settings and all the rest of it, whatever charm your nifty discovery app offered is lost.

Imagine, though, that all of the content sources you subscribe to, have a VOD account with or otherwise have access to were integrated in a single platform connected to a single input on the TV and accessible through a single interface, so that switching among them was as simple as changing channels is now. If that were in place, developers could then start layering on new types of discovery interfaces that might start to add real value.

Imagine a personalized grid of Pandora-like “channels” built around particular shows or genres, or a search-based interface that mapped its results to the particular content sources you have access to so you could simply select what you wanted and start watching it instantly. Those sorts of apps could improve the experience of watching TV. But they’re only possible once we’ve solved the access problem.