Frequency, Showyou bring order to online-video chaos

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Deloitte’s annual survey of the media landscape, released early last month, reported that 9% of the people interviewed had canceled their pay TV subscriptions in favor of watching shows online, and another 11% were considering it. Those are big, scary numbers for cable and satellite TV operators, as well as for TV producers who haven’t found a way yet to make online viewing as lucrative as the combination of advertising dollars and monthly subscriber fees they collect from the likes of Comcast and DirecTV.

But there’s another phenomenon that should be more alarming to industry incumbents: the emergence of services that capably transform the chaotic jumble of online video into compelling channels of entertainment. Two good examples are Los Angeles-based Frequency, which makes apps for mobile devices, computers and connected TVs, and Showyou, an iPad and iPhone app from San Francisco-based Remixation.

Unlike Clicker, neither company pays attention to the broadcast or cable TV episodes that are online, nor do they offer an index to movies on demand (at least not yet). Instead, they aggregate clips and links from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, among other sources, then organize them into feeds by genre and popularity. They also use social-media tools to create personalized feeds curated by one’s Facebook friends, Twitter connections and other users of each app.

They have different strategies -- Frequency is trying to put its app on every device a person might use to watch video, while Showyou is focused primarily on iPads and iPhones -- and their apps have different looks -- Frequency presents multiple channels in separate scrollable columns, Showyou a single array that can be scrolled in two directions. But they have a similar effect, which is to present online video in the familiar, channel-based, lean-back context of television. It’s interactive, sure, but without all the effort (or the keyboard).


Frequency Chief Executive Blair Harrison brought much of his former team at iFilm to his new company in 2009, when he set out to solve what he saw as the central problem with online video. ‘The process of watching video was incredibly cumbersome,’ Harrison says, noting the multiplicity of sources and players and the lack of filters to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What Frequency does, Harrison said, is bring order and structure to online video. It starts by generating channels automatically from the video links provided by a user’s Facebook friends and Twitter subscriptions, along with feeds of the site’s most popular videos and selected other sources. Its app then lets people create channels based either on a topic they search for (e.g., ‘Blake Griffin’) or one of the feeds in Frequency’s genre-sorted index (e.g., Reddit or BBC America). It also applies a layer of intelligence, based on how someone uses the site and ‘social signals’ from Facebook and Twitter, to customize each person’s version of the app.

‘What we want to show you first is the thing we think you want to see first,’ Harrison said.

The company has versions of the app for computers, the iPad and Samsung’s 2012 smart TV models, where it will be pre-installed and appear on the application’s home screen. The company is developing versions for other platforms and devices, on the theory that ‘you’ve got to be everywhere,’ as Harrison put it. The apps have somewhat different user interfaces -- the iPad home screen is devoted to columns of thumbnails from multiple channels, while the TV and computer apps devote most of the home screen to a video window -- but each version displays the user’s personalized channels in a common ‘tuner’ bar.

So far, Frequency has integrated about 150 different video sources, and others can publish directly to Frequency’s app through its support for Brightcove’s online video platform. The app presents the videos according to the content provider’s dictates, including advertisements, redistribution limits and the like.

Frequency won’t insert its own ads into its partners’ video streams, Harrison said. Beyond that, though, he’s vague about how the company will make money off its service. ‘Our goal is to get to a very large number of viewers,’ Harrison said. ‘Ultimately, we’re generating video viewing time, and we’re going to monetize that.’

That sounds like something out of a failed 1990s dot-com, but Harrison argues that no one’s figured out the business model yet for the emerging connected-TV and tablet platforms. Frequency’s plan is to develop the optimal user experience for those platforms, then go from there.

I wrote about Showyou when it unveiled its iPad app in April, and its approach hasn’t changed since then. It continues to aggregate videos into personalized feeds based on a user’s social graph, laying out each feed as a sea of thumbnails that can be scrolled in two directions. The more one scrolls away from the starting point, the less personalized the clips become.

On Thursday, though, it releases a significantly upgraded version of the app, adding the ability to browse channels organized by category (e.g., the ‘Comedy’ category includes video feeds from ‘The Colbert Report,’ The Onion and Funny or Die). It also enables users to zoom in on the individual sources within their Showyou ‘grid’ -- for example, displaying the videos just from Twitter. And people can create video grids on the fly based on hashtags assigned to videos on Twitter or Showyou.

Chief Executive Mark Hall said Showyou users spend an average of a whopping 35 to 40 minutes watching videos each time they run the app. Just as telling, the peak usage is on weekend afternoons and weekday evenings. In other words, people aren’t using Showyou during breaks at work; they’re using it at home instead of watching TV. These data, like Deloitte’s survey results, show that Web videos are starting to crowd out traditional TV.

Noting how the compact disc went from a position of unchallenged dominance in the music industry to steep decline, Hall said, ‘We’re definitely in the beginning of a 10-year phenomenon [in video] that’s not dissimilar to that.’ In addition to the ‘structural pressure’ caused by escalating programming costs, particularly for sports, the TV industry is facing a growing challenge from Web upstarts with inexpensive production and distribution. ‘It’s cheaper and easier to make good-quality content than it’s ever been,’ Hall said.

Everyone has a handful of must-see TV programs, but ‘everything else is fungible,’ Hall said. Pointing to Showyou on an iPad, he said, ‘Now there’s more and more interesting stuff here.’ And thanks to the likes of Frequency and Showyou, people don’t have to go searching for the interesting stuff -- it finds them.


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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him at @jcahealey.