Soft Programming and the Missing Platform

At the Mediapost Future of Media Forum earlier this week panelists were asked what companies they expect to join Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google as dominant players in the new media world.

No specific company names were mentioned but there was an interesting discussion between the moderator, Josh Quittner, Editorial Director of Flipboard, and Steve Lacy, CEO of Meredith Corporation about what makes Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google so dominant.  “Platforms” was the key word of the discussion…the notion that these companies have created an environment for interacting with consumers that other players gravitate to.  As the discussion evolved, the phrase in my mind was “network effect”; the more consumers converge on these platforms the more gravitational power they gain to attract more content…and more usage.

That is not to say that other companies won’t break in…someone on the panel said there will be hundreds of new and successful companies capturing emerging, lucrative niches.  But the implication of the discussion was…if a new major player emerges it will most likely be the creator and owner of a new platform that speaks to some fundamental consumer need.

The question then becomes, is there a missing platform?  The clue is in an article that appeared in today’s New York Times, among the many that paid respects to Steve Jobs.  As per the article, despite the huge impact of Apple products on the way we consume media, TV, the medium that captures the bulk of our time, remains relatively untouched.   Both Apple and Google have taken aim but Apple TV is still a miniscule player and Google TV seems to have little or no traction.   My bet is that somewhere in this area the new platform and perhaps new corporate player will emerge.

What do people want in the area loosely defined as TV?   This includes traditional cable and satellite delivery, multi-platform and over the top delivery of online video, players like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes and YouTube… all competing for share of the consumer’s video-viewing time.

I think the consumer wants what they want in every other sphere…choice and control…to find through the mass of everything available the content they want to watch at any particular moment in time.

Soft programming is the phrase I would use to describe the consumer need.   Hard programming is the old-fashioned model – we’ll schedule this show at 8P as a lead-in to this show at 9P.   Video search is on the other side of the spectrum – zero programming – if you know what you want we’ll help you find it.   Soft programming is something in-between…a user-friendly narrowing of the consumer’s choice without forcing anything down his throat.   The Netflix recommendation engine is an example of soft programming that works beautifully within Netflix…though it doesn’t help the consumer cut through the myriad video offerings impinging on him from all sources.   Another example of soft programming is old-fashioned channel surfing.   That’s how the consumer used to deal with the problem rather than fully accepting any hard programmed stream.   But there are going to be too many video options for that venerable method, or existing clunky channel guides, to address the need.

Will one magical solution come to the rescue?   Of the many barriers, I’ll name two.  Content owners and distributors will do anything before they allow a third party filter to come between their assets and the consumer…unless their hand is somehow forced.  And second, perhaps less of a show-stopper but bothersome, the consumer will resist buying any additional piece of equipment, any new “box”….see Apple TV and Google TV.

But any unmet consumer need is like water building up around a dam.  As video content, linear and on demand, continues to inundate the consumer from a myriad of sources, the need for a smart, personalized, soft programming filter will grow.  Eventually some Jobs-like genius will invent the video content platform of the future…and, to get back to the original question, his or her company will be the one that joins Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google as a major player in the new media age.