TVs Start Listening To Their Masters’ Voices

Related: Speech Lessons

“TV, find me shows starring vampires.” That futuristic command could soon result in an on-demand revolution, and not just for Twilight junkies. A button with a little microphone stands to be the most disruptive feature added to remote controls since fast-forward.

Pushing that button enables voice-activated search and that could transform the way people watch TV. Easier searches could mean more people watching on-demand content they really want to see and fewer grazing on linear TV they may not find compelling. Voice-driven engagement, boosters say, could mean a closer attachment to the cable bundle.

Voice innovation, which upends decades of manual, menu search requiring great effort and persistence by consumers, could help solve one of the industry’s most vexing problems. A tidal wave of programming, much of it of a caliber never matched in the medium’s history, has washed ashore, causing ratings erosion and viewer confusion. FX Networks chief John Landgraf last week at TCA summer press tour warned about the wages of “peak TV,” saying by his count there will be 400 scripted series by year-end, up from 280 four years ago. Tools for discovering content, especially on-demand, are in desperate need for a traditional ecosystem under duress.

More on-demand viewing will enable more shows to be discovered, but it will put additional stress on the traditional advertising business. But the advanced advertising solutions being installed by distributors, including dynamic ad insertion and addressable advertising, might be able to pick up some of the slack.

One thing is certain: the number of voice-enabled TV sets and set-top devices is growing significantly. The largest U.S. cable operator, Comcast, is rolling out 50,000 a week to its subscribers—with about a half-million distributed at this point. Amazon, Roku and Xbox platforms can all be spoken to. Dish Network is rolling out a voice system. DirecTV is expected to launch one soon, and other cable companies are likely to follow.

Universal Electronics, the largest remote maker, estimates that about 15% of TV and cable device remotes have voice now and that in a year that could jump to 40-50%.

Voice search is a big enough deal that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts conducted a demo of the new function from the stage of this year’s national cable show in May and gave away the remotes to attendees.

Roberts said search was the “key to everything” as Comcast offers its subscribers more content, and voice “takes search to a whole new level.” He said Comcast had purchased more than 5 million voice remotes and subscribers get them for free.

In the demo, Roberts spoke the phrase, “Life is like a box of chocolates” into the remote’s microphone and the scene from Forrest Gump popped up on screen. He asked, “How old is Tom Hanks?” and the answer appeared. “People are using their smartphone to do things like this. We just thought we should put it all right in the remote control,” he said.

All of this should sound pretty scary if you have a linear TV network and base your business model on people still plopping down on the couch to watch whatever’s on Channel 2.

The traditional TV business over the years has been disrupted plenty by digital technology. First, DVRs enabled viewers to watch what they wanted when they wanted and skip commercials while doing it. Then, Netflix and others streaming video players created more options for viewers, cutting TV network ratings. TV networks must also deal with cord-cutters and skinny bundles from cable operators that threaten distribution revenue.

With voice remotes, “Viewers are going to consume much more on-demand content because they just don’t know what’s out there, they don’t know what’s available to them,” said Lou Hughes, executive VP at Universal Electronics. “And when they all of a sudden get access to what’s available to them and they actually like it and can find it easily they start watching a lot more on-demand content.”

Universal research shows viewer frustration with traditional menus. “They want to find what they want to watch right now,” he said.

In the cloud, where voice search requests get processed, “we’ve seen nearly a 300% increase year on year since last year,” said Scott Taylor, senior VP for mobile devices at Nuance, a speech recognition firm whose clients include Samsung, Roku and Comcast.

That’s why Comcast is pushing voice control to customers who have the Xfinity X1 operating system. With more programming choices available, people want to be able to go directly to those choices, said Jeanine Heck, senior director of product development at Comcast responsible for rolling out and developing the voice remote.

Voice search should create more satisfied customers, backers say. “Searching on a TV has always been through the guide or through a keyboard and we’ve done a great job on X1 with our character-by-character search, but this even goes further. You have a button, you say the word and you see what you’re looking for,” said Heck.

Heck said the way subscribers use the voice remote changes over time. People figure out pretty early how to change the channel using network names.

That gives an advantage to networks with well-known brands but less memorable channel numbers. One network that proved very popular with voice-remote users was Cartoon Network. “It’s a channel that people like but might forget what neighborhood it’s in on the guide,” said Heck. Voice “is a great way to jump to it.”

She said Comcast can’t tell whether kids or grownups are asking for Cartoon Network by name. Kids titles like SpongeBob SquarePants, Paw Patrol and Teen Titans Go are among the most popular searches. “There’s definitely an interest in kids content and so I think what we’re seeing is young people embrace technology and use it even more than some of their older counterparts.”

It is too soon to make broad conclusions about how consumer habits are changing but Heck said one great thing about voice search is that it allows you to access very niche content genres. For example, even though it wasn’t built into the user interface, a lot of people searched for vampire shows and movies and were able to find them.

Some people will simply say, “soccer” or “baseball” into the remote, and X1 will guide them to the games that are currently playing.

Or they’ll simply ask “what should I watch?” When it hears that, Comcast offers personalized recommendations based on what that consumer’s watched in the past. “People do like voice as a new novel way to get to a different list of things to watch,” Heck said.

Heck said Comcast has no plans in the works to let networks advertise via voice to make sure their shows pop up when consumers search for something to watch.

Voice is also becoming a weapon among those who seek to control the TV watching experience. Not so long ago, TV set makers wanted their remotes to be as cheap as possible because they figured most consumers would be throwing them in a drawer and using the remote that came with their cable box. No more. As TV sets got smarter with Internet connections, remotes added features and have risen in price from about $2 to $12. That premium is due to the premise that if consumers are using your remote, you have more control over the consumer experience and, perhaps, more of the revenue generated by that consumer.

“These guys came to us and said hey we want to do whatever we can do to keep our remote control in our customer’s hand,” said Universal Electronics’ Hughes. “We want them to use our interface so that maybe when they want to consume content, they’re going to consume our on-demand content rather than the operators’.”

Universal built its first voice remotes for Panasonic, Sony and Samsung. Then, Amazon jumped in with its Fire remote. Roku also offers voice remote.

“We looked at voice for a while and centered in on its best use, which is for search. That really is the core of what Roku is trying to do, is get people to the show they want to watch as fast as possible,” said Lloyd Klarke, director of product launch at Roku. Since voice launched on Roku in March, the company said more than 50% of the people who have it are using it fairly regularly, most often to search for content.

Microsoft’s latest Xbox has a voice remote and pass-through interface that allows you to get a Rovi guide and your content, said Hughes.

“Customers really expressed that they liked having the ease of using voice to find that content and I think the operators started to feel some real pressure that they needed to do something or their on-demand and VOD business was just going to crater against these upstart rivals on the OTT, smart TV and on-demand side over the Internet,” Hughes said.

Comcast was the first cable company to realize this, Hughes said. The remote Universal makes for Comcast, in addition to voice, features sleek finishes and a new type of backlighting on the keypad called Blackout that activates when it is moved and is easy to read at night in daylight.

“Comcast wants that subscriber to fall in love with that remote,” he said. That remoted control controls all the devices in the entertainment center and they never have to go away from it. They never have to pick up another remote control.”

Why is that important to Comcast? “My thought is they wouldn’t be giving a very expensive remote away like Chiclets if they weren’t doing really well with the return on investment in terms of increased VOD and content distribution revenue,” Hughes said.

Remotes will also be adding more features. Roku’s remote has an accelerometer inside to support motion so it can be used to control gaming. (Comcast recently made a deal with Electronic Arts to add games to X1.)

And remotes can control more than what’s happening on the TV.

Comcast sees Xfinity as a portal for home automation using voice recognition and artificial intelligence to turn up the thermostat or unlock the doors.

“That’s definitely on our radar,” Heck said. “I don’t know how we’ll package it, but voice has a big future in the way you interact with all your Xfinity products and anything in your homes. ”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.