It's a huge year for TV's future. Yet for all the excitement about Web-first soap operas, data-driven programming and the disruption of broadcast, the Internet TV "inflection point" that 2013 has become is just the beginning. A Trojan horse is slowly rolling into town, and it's bursting at the seams with data. Wheeling it along is none other than Google.
Indeed, if the data-fueled success of Netflix's House of Cards is as crucial to TV's future as many believe, what Google is most likely planning will make the transformation we've witnessed so far look like early innings in a very long ball game.
First, though, a caveat: Google has said almost nothing about its plans for taking on the TV market, and I don't have any new inside information to offer on that front. What follows is instead a giant thought experiment — a plausible (to me, at least), fact-based extrapolation of just how thoroughly Google could disrupt the TV industry should it put its mind to it. And should users consent to its plans.
TV's Future Hinges On Content, Data and UX
Whatever TV looks like in the future, it will be built atop three crucial components: content, intelligence and user experience. A fourth element, known as actually making money, hinges heavily on the "intelligence" part — which is to say, data.
The industry is collectively still figuring out the user experience part. Apple is rumored to have "cracked" the interface problem, but until Steve Jobs's prophetic words find a home in reality, we're stuck with the puzzle's most promising pieces: the likes of AirPlay, Roku and a small army of creative video app designers.
That leaves the content and intelligence parts, which are what Netflix is purported to have mastered with House of Cards and what Amazon hopes to mimic with with its own Internet-first TV pilots. Hulu has taken its own stabs, but has yet to score a House of Cards-sized hit.
For the last few years, Google's YouTube has also invested quite heavily in original, TV-quality programming for Internet audiences. It, too, is still trying to find its Kevin Spacey. But it's likely only a matter of time before everybody's buzzing about the new show on YouTube, much like we've long chattered about double rainbows and finger-biting babies.
Google will find its killer content. It will do so in part by leveraging the very thing that gives the company an advantage in just about any space it enters: all that data.
YouTube: A Burgeoning Trove Of User Data
An absurdly funny standup routine by Louis CK? Thumbs up. A mini-documentary about 3D-printed guns? Consider the "Watch Later" button tapped. Every music video I ever wanted to see? YouTube has them too, and designating my favorites is effortless. With every tap of each of YouTube's buttons — thumbs up, add to a playlist, watch later and, most importantly, "play" — I'm feeding fresh data to the world's biggest video site. Which, in turn, it uses to build out personalized recommendations, not unlike the special sauce Netflix used to wipe out Blockbuster.
Of course, the data on Netflix's servers is a bit more useful when it comes to recommending long form, Hollywood-caliber video to its users, since that's what Netflix specializes in exclusively. It's the type of knowledge Google will presumably get better at building as its selection of professionally-produced video expands.
What Google Knows - And Will Know - About Us
In the meantime, Google is building out a much richer profile of its users than Netflix and Hulu could ever dream of creating.
Outside of YouTube, Google knows a great deal about us. Just how much it knows varies depending on how heavily you use Google's services — and how finely you tune your privacy settings.
For me, that data includes my browsing history (across devices), email, documents, voicemails, eight years of search queries, detailed location data from Maps, a limited view of my schedule from Google Calendar (I mostly use iCal) and a smattering of other data points from the more than 25 different active services tied to my Gmail account/ And I'm not even an Android user.
These services don't all swap data freely — and my Google Drive may well contain no information that's of value to YouTube. But collectively, these services build out a rather richly-detailed general profile of who we are, what we do, where we go and what we enjoy. In theory, YouTube has the capability of knowing not just what Netflix knows — what we watch, when we skip, how we rate — but also quite a lot about who we are in general.
In the future — if Google's master plan unfolds accordingly — this will all be buttressed with social insights. As its social efforts ramp up, our list of Gmail contacts becomes much more informative: who's in which circles? What do they +1? Who do I trust?
Google+ is still the exclusive domain of early adopters and media geeks, but in time the company intends for it to become a viable alternative to Facebook and will eagerly ingest all of the social data points that come with that distinction. You can catch an early glimpse of how Google intends to use social data in the next iteration of its Maps interface, which will leverage your social connections to provide recommendations about where to go next. Think Google Now for your physical location.
How Google Could Use This Data To Win At TV
Similarly, we may one day see Google Now for TV. That is, anticipatory content recommendations fueled by your viewing history, social connections and insights inferred from a complex tapestry of data points from across services and devices.
Recommendations are important (indeed, cracking this code certainly helped put Netflix in a position to win with House of Cards), but they're only the beginning of what's possible when television is fueled by very, very big data. As its video efforts ramp up, Google — like Netflix before it — will be able to factor in mountains of user data to determine not just what to recommend, but what content to buy the exclusive rights to, or even produce outright.
Unlike other Internet TV shows, these new premium productions will sit within the world's biggest repository of online video. Sure, much of it is garbage, but the sheer scale of the material it has on hand increases Google's ability to smartly serve up relevant, worthwhile videos to people who come to check out its new shows. Not to mention how easy it would be to rope YouTube's casual, cat video-watching users into clicking the play button on their next big TV-style program. House of Cats, anyone?
In the fall, Nielsen is going to start factoring Internet viewing stats into its decades-old TV-viewing measurement methodology. It's a move that's widely viewed as being both long overdue and symbolic of where TV is heading. If you ask me, Nielsen isn't going far or fast enough to stay relevant. The further companies like Google move into the TV space, the less sense the old, panel-based methodology for tracking makes sense.
In a recent post on the Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux argues that the sample-based method Nielsen uses to track Web user activity is ripe to be upended by Google's far more sophisticated mechanisms, which even go so far as to use statistical pairing to filter out repeat visitors that may be coming to the same site from multiple devices. Filloux is referring to Web tracking, not TV viewership — the traditional part of which Nielsen is uniquely capable of measuring.
But his argument carries over into the realm of online video and usage, which Google is far better at measuring than Nielsen is. As more viewers turn to the Internet for what we've historically referred to as "TV", Google's method — and what it means for potential advertisers — becomes a lot more attractive than Nielsen's.
When it comes time to monetize those shows, all that big data will be just as useful. This is, of course, Google's specialty. The company that figured out how to make billions by serving contextually relevant ads to people searching the Web is probably well-positioned to do the same with the future version of what we once knew as television commercials.
What Stands In The Way
Just because Google has the algorithmic capacity to acquire, smartly deliver and monetize rave-worthy content on a disruptive scale, that doesn't mean it will. If this indeed what Google plans to do, it's going to have to clear some hurdles.
Then there's the content issue, which is huge. YouTube already houses a massive amount of video, and Google likely has the intelligence to find its own House of Cards. But when it comes to hosting premium, TV-caliber content, Google is still playing catch up.
As Tim Carmody pointed out recently, Microsoft is much better positioned to win the living room than Apple is, primarily because Microsoft has managed to pull together the most compelling selection of content. (The same argument applies if you substitute Google for Apple.) That includes not just video games like Halo and Gears of War but online video sources and live TV available directly from cable providers.
With the XBox One, Microsoft also takes a pretty compelling stab at the interface problem. It doesn't eliminate the hand-held remote, but rather augments it with voice control and gesture-based interfaces that make us feel like we're truly living in the future.
To win at TV, Google is going to have to learn from products like the XBox One and incorporate a level of polish and attention to the user experience as its done with its more recent Android versions and handsets. If Google can create the Nexus 4 or set top boxes, loaded up with with a bulletproof UX and a wide selection of supreme-quality content, the Apples and Amazons of the world will have some catching up to do. And the traditional players will be screwed.