The Metadata Situation Sucks -- What We Must Do to Fix the 'Plumbing' of the Streaming Video Experience Today (Bloom)

(Image credit: Village Plumbing)

The past few weeks have seen an odd sort of gold rush in the streaming video industry, as seemingly every media-focused B2B news and research organization has put on one or more live events, many at least partly in person for the first time in two years. 

The good news: Those many gatherings -- from august trade groups such as DEG, NATPE and OTT.X and publishers such as Future, the parent of this very news operation -- have helped everyone finally get in a (real) room together and talk about some of the things holding back the streaming video industry as it evolves into its next phase. 

Simply put, lots of people in the industry think we need to do a lot more talking, to figure out problems clogging the industry’s most basic “plumbing,” the metadata undergirding the streaming video experience, from recommending the right shows to serving the right ads. 

To use the technical term employed by many, the metadata situation sucks.  

Monica Williams, an NBCUniversal senior VP of digital products and operations, used her bully pulpit on 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 would in searching for something to watch. 

Labeling a show a “comedy” is fine, but what kind of comedy? Is it “dark?” “Satiric?” “Raunchy?” “Teen?” Is it a standup special, or a scripted series? Shorts? Feature length? Animated? 

Basically, humans have far more sophisticated and nuanced language to describe what they want to watch than most metadata and search functions can accommodate, especially when shows are made in one place, distributed in many more and may get licensed to still other outlets, said Williams, whose job makes her function as something of a “glue” person across Comcast’s many video production and distribution operations. 

Williams’ concerns about metadata usability sparked plenty of other conversations, too. What one company deems important for describing its programming doesn’t necessarily segue nicely into each distributor’s formats, reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of both programming and advertising across the industry. 

And the platforms aren’t always so helpful either. Sinclair’s Stirr may provide highly granular data to its customers, while Roku’s far larger and more lucrative platform delivers partners a bare few lines of performance data, said a senior executive at a data-measurement company exhibiting at a Denver conference. Companies depending on that Roku reach need far more feedback on how their programs are doing. 

But what if companies paid Roku or others for access to all that beautiful data, in something like retrans fees in cable, the exec suggested. That at least would be the beginning of industry-changing negotiations. 

Elsewhere in the burgeoning ad-supported streaming sector, the problem may be too much complexity rather than too little. 

Simplifying the purchase process has become a big focus for ad-supported Future Today, whose co-founder Vikrant Mathur was on one of my panels (the Next TV Summit). After operating dozens of highly niche FAST channels for years, the company is now pushing just three: Fawesome, Happy Kids, and The company also just launched a dedicated sales team, called FTI+, to shepherd legacy brands and buyers into the befuddling, many-layered universe of video streaming.   

“What we want to do is we want to simplify the message and make it easier for these people to understand,” Mathur told me. “Digital buyers are used to a landscape that's very, very fragmented. A big focus for us is to simplify. At the end of the day, (traditional buyers) want clean, family-friendly programming that is lean-back on a big screen.” 

Executives with other streaming services echoed the same kind of sales simplification approach as they welcome an influx of new ad dollars. But will the approach also reduce the power of targeted advertising, as buyers bypass big parts of the ecosystem for the sake of simplicity and brand safety? This may be a temporary issue, as buyers get more sophisticated and the ad stack consolidates middle-man operators. 

All this is happening at an awkward time for the streaming business. The Great Netflix Recalibration is changing lots of industry verities and investor expectations. 

Meanwhile, Wells Fargo analysts foresee a chilly ad market even as the industry pivots to the ad-supported side of the business. A possible recession clouds near-term prospects particularly for ad-fueled companies such as Roku, Tubi and Pluto. 

“The length and depth of the recessionary slowdown will determine whether pain makes its way to the longer cycle areas of the ad market,” Wells Fargo analysts wrote.

And then there was the hefty fact bomb dropped over the weekend by researchers at ad-buying giant GroupM and ad-measurement firm iSpot.TV, which now works with NBCU on ratings alternatives to Nielsen. 

The organizations reported that some streaming devices have what The Information gently called “a funny quirk,” though it’s a quirk that also might enrage ad buyers.

Seems millions of dongles, pucks, game consoles and other external streaming devices keep playing shows and ads even after the TV they’re attached to is turned off, the study found. For brands, that means as much as 17% of ads shown on connected devices could be playing to, um, nobody. Funny quirk indeed. 

The ghost commercials aren’t an issue with Smart TVs, like the ones from Vizio tested in the study (they’re trying LG’s platform next). WIth the streaming interface built into the TV itself, both get turned off at once. But the situation elsewhere won’t ease brand skepticism about tens of millions of streaming devices playing ads into the abyss. 

Expect lots more scrutiny on issues like these in coming months. 

As Deloitte vice chair and tech sector lead Jana Arbanas put it: “In times of abundance, there is less scrutiny when it comes to individual performance of different types of media, or different products, if you will. But in a recession, that becomes a laser focus relative to the objectives of the products and whether they are meeting them.”

The flurry of in-person industry gatherings may help begin the process of fixing these issues across the ecosystem. Plenty of people see where the streaming-video industry needs to grow up. Now it’s time to start talking. As the era of easy subscriber growth and fattening ad revenues passes into history, industry-wide cooperation and conversations on these issues will be crucial to fuel future growth. 

N.B.: More Mayhem In The Mouse House?

Last week, I wrote about the hotly contested bidding expected Sunday for media rights to Indian Premier League cricket matches over the next five years. It’s an extremely big deal in one of the world’s biggest streaming markets, and likely will have a big impact on the ability of Disney, the incumbent rights holder, to reach its stated goal of 230 million to 260 million streaming subscribers by the end of 2024. 

The IPL media rights ended up split, with streaming going to Viacom18 – a joint venture of Paramount Global, local giant Reliance Industries, and the investment firm Bodhi Tree Systems – for $2.6 billion. That price is $100 million more than Disney’s Star India unit paid for all media rights in 2017. 

This time around, Disney did retain broadcast rights, for a steep $3 billion over five years, that will feed its dozens of broadcast stations around the Subcontinent. Other international rand non-exclusive rights are still being bid out, meaning the combined payments for the 410 IPL matches each year will be well more than double those of the current deal.

For Disney CEO Bob Chapek, the imminent loss of a major content piece of its Indian streaming services represents yet another headache at a difficult time. 

Chapek punctuated the week by unexpectedly firing Peter Rice, the former Fox executive who was Disney’s top TV exec. Rice was seen as a possible Chapek replacement should Disney’s board decide not to renew the CEO’s contract before it expires in eight months. 

It is, of course, standard operating procedure in the manual of Corporate Lifeboat to throw overboard the most likely successors to your captaincy. Insiders said that had absolutely nothing to do with his dismissal. Instead, the well-liked Rice was tossed over – three years after joining Disney and months after signing a new three-year contract – because he wasn’t collaborative enough and wasn’t a “good fit.” Maybe that lifeboat was suddenly feeling a little crowded. 

For her part, Disney board chair Susan Arnold issued an unusual statement saying Chapek and “his leadership team have the support and confidence of the board.” I’m sure they do. 

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.