The Metadata Situation Sucks — What We Must Do to Fix the ‘Plumbing’ of the Streaming Video Experience Today (Bloom)
In recent weeks, the streaming video industry has experienced an odd sort of gold rush, as seemingly every media-focused B2B news and research organization has hosted one or more live events, many of which have been at least partially in-person for the first time in two years.
The good news: these many gatherings – from respected trade groups like DEG, NATPE and OTT.X and publishers like Future, the parent company of this news operation – have helped everyone finally get in a (real) space together and talk about some of the things holding the streaming video industry back as it moves into the next phase.
Simply put, many people in the industry think we need to talk a lot more to solve problems clogging the industry’s most basic “pipeline”, the metadata that underpins the streaming video experience from recommending the right shows until the right advertisement is placed.
To use the jargon used by many, the metadata situation sucks.
Monica Williams, senior vice president of digital products and operations at NBCUniversal, used her bullying pulpit at a Questex-produced panel in Denver and in a subsequent conversation with me to point out that metadata program descriptions don’t use language like normal people do would be looking for something to look at.
Calling a show a “comedy” is fine, but what comedy? Is it “dark”? “Satirical?” “Rough?” “Teenager?” Is it a standup special or a scripted series? Shorts? feature length? Animated?
Basically, humans have a much more sophisticated and nuanced language for describing what they want to watch than most metadata and search capabilities can accommodate, especially when shows are made in one place, distributed in many more places, and possibly licensed to yet other outlets, said Williams , whose job allows her to act as a kind of “glue” in Comcast’s many video production and distribution activities.
Williams’ concerns about the usability of metadata sparked many other conversations as well. What a company finds important to describe its program may not translate well into each distributor’s format, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of both the program and advertising across the industry.
And the platforms aren’t always that helpful either. Sinclair’s Stirr can deliver highly granular data to its clients, while Roku Partners’ far larger and more lucrative platform delivers just a few rows of performance data, said Matt Smith, VP of business development at data analytics firm Symphony Media AI. Companies that depend on this Roku reach need a lot more feedback on how their programs are performing.
But what if companies paid Roku or others to access all that beautiful data, in the form of retrans fees on cable, Smith suggested. That would at least be the beginning of industry-changing negotiations.
Elsewhere in the burgeoning ad-supported streaming sector, the problem may lie in too much complexity rather than too little.
Simplifying the buying process has become a major focus for ad-supported Future Today, of which Vikrant Mathur was a co-founder on one of my panels. After years of running dozens of niche FAST channels, the company is now pushing just three: Fawesome, Happy Kids, and iFood.tv. The company also just launched a dedicated sales team called FTI+ to introduce legacy brands and buyers to the confusing, multi-layered universe of video streaming.
“We want to simplify the message and make it easier for these people to understand,” Mathur told me. “Digital buyers are used to a very, very fragmented landscape. A big focus for us is on simplification. Ultimately, (traditional buyers) want a clean, family-friendly program that leans on a big screen.”
Executives with other streaming services have echoed the same approach to simplifying distribution, as they welcome an influx of new ad dollars. But will the approach also reduce the power of targeted advertising as shoppers bypass large parts of the ecosystem in favor of simplicity and brand safety? This can be a temporary issue as buyers become more sophisticated and the ad stack consolidates middlemen.
All of this comes at a bad time for the streaming business. The big Netflix recalibration is changing many industry truths and investor expectations.
Meanwhile, analysts at Wells Fargo are forecasting a cold ad market even as the industry shifts to the ad-supported side of the business. A potential recession is clouding the near-term outlook, particularly for ad-supported companies like Roku, Tubi, and Pluto.
“The length and depth of the recessionary slowdown will determine whether problems trickle down into longer-cycle areas of the advertising market,” Wells Fargo analysts wrote.
And then there was the massive fact-bomb dropped over the weekend by researchers at advertising giant GroupM and ad measurement firm iSpot.TV, which is now working with NBCU on rating alternatives to Nielsen.
The organizations reported that some streaming devices have what The Information gently called “a fun quirk,” though it’s a quirk that might also irk ad buyers.
The study found that millions of dongles, pucks, game consoles, and other external streaming devices continue to play shows and commercials even when the TV they’re plugged into is turned off. For brands, that means up to 17% of ads displayed on connected devices could be rendered to, um, nobody. Funny quirk indeed.
Ghost advertising isn’t a problem with smart TVs like the ones from Vizio tested in the study (they’re trying LG’s platform next). With the streaming interface integrated in the TV itself, both are switched off at the same time. But the situation elsewhere won’t ease the brand’s skepticism about tens of millions of streaming devices playing ads into the abyss.
Expect a lot more research into topics like these in the coming months.
Jana Arbanas, Deloitte Vice-Chair and Head of Technology Sector, said: “In times of plenty, the individual performance of different types of media is scrutinized or, if you will, less scrutinized. But in a recession, that becomes a laser focus in terms of what the products are targeting and whether they are meeting them.”
The flurry of face-to-face industry meetings can help kickstart the process of fixing these issues across the ecosystem. A lot of people are seeing where the streaming video industry needs to grow up. Now it’s time to start talking. As the era of easy subscriber growth and soaring ad revenue fades into history, industry-wide collaboration and conversations on these topics will be critical to driving future growth.
NB: More chaos in the mouse house?
Last week I wrote about the hotly contested tender expected on Sunday for media rights to Indian Premier League cricket matches for the next five years. It’s an extremely big deal in one of the biggest streaming markets in the world, and will likely have a major impact on Disney, the incumbent rights holder,’s ability to hit its stated goal of 230 million to 260 million streaming subscribers by the end of 2024 .
The IPL media rights were eventually split and the streaming went to Viacom18 – a joint venture between Paramount Global, local giant Reliance Industries and investment firm Bodhi Tree Systems – for $2.6 billion. That price is $100 million more than what Disney’s Star India entity paid for all media rights in 2017.
This time, Disney retained the broadcasting rights for a whopping $3 billion over five years, which will power its dozens of broadcast stations across the subcontinent. Other non-exclusive international fringe rights are still being tendered, meaning the combined payments for the 410 IPL games per year will be well over double the current deal.
For Disney CEO Bob Chapek, the imminent loss of a key piece of content from its Indian streaming services poses another concern at a difficult time.
Chapek marked the week with the unexpected firing of Peter Rice, the former Fox exec who was Disney’s top TV exec. Rice has been seen as a possible replacement for Chapek should Disney’s board decide not to renew the CEO’s contract before it expires in eight months.
It is, of course, standard procedure in the Corporate Lifeboat Handbook to jettison the most likely successors to your captaincy. Insiders said it had absolutely nothing to do with his firing. Instead, the popular Rice was dumped — three years after he joined Disney and months after signing a new three-year deal — for being uncooperative enough and not a “good fit.” Maybe the lifeboat suddenly felt a little crowded.
For her part, Disney CEO Susan Arnold issued an unusual statement, saying Chapek and “his executive team have the board’s support and trust.” I’m sure they do.