Media Center’s Guide Needs an Overhaul

Ok, I know what you’re saying, but Tom, I live in country X and we don’t even have the regular Media Center guide yet, how can you say it’s already time for an overhaul?

Well it’s not really time for a guide overhaul but it’s important to get the seed planted early. Don’t expect a guide overhaul for the MCE 2005 update later this Fall but for 2006 and beyond this is something that is going to need to be done so let’s start strategizing early. What necessitates this overhaul? Two things, search and micro content.

Let’s start with search. At present, Media Center, and the whole rest of the gang (Comcast, TiVo, DirecTV, etc. etc. etc.) are pathetic. If you got these kinds of search results from Google you’d be crying like a grown man whose Netflix shipment just showed up loaded with When Harry Met Sally, Steel Magnolias, Autumn in New York and Untamed Heart. Seriously, type in “wine” right now the Media Center guide and I get three lousy shows. Type in “Scoble” and you get, “sorry. There were no exact matches for Scoble in the next two weeks.” Type in “Bill Gates” and you get, “Sorry. There were no exact matches for bill gates in the next two weeks.” It’s nice to know though that my first suggested alternative for Bill Gates is American Gigolo. Somebody must have seen those old Tiger Beat photos.

The reason why the search results are so poor is that we are limited to the program descriptions that are provided to Microsoft by their guide provider Zap2it and they in turn are limited by what the content providers give them.

What is needed first off is to begin indexing closed captioned text for all television that is repeated. Much of television is actually repeated. News shows will play the same shows over and over, programming will show on East and West Coast feeds, syndicated content has already been captioned, standard network repeat stuff, etc. By indexing these captions, even where the accuracy rate is say at 85% (closed captioning is kind of an on the fly thing and can be full of typing mistakes), you will dramatically improve the search experience and I just may be able to find not only an interview with Mr. Gates that was broadcast somewhere, but four or five news reports in a given night where his name was mentioned.

What also will be needed is post broadcast indexing of all closed caption text for first run shows. This will be helpful to allow you to schedule programming today should it ever be rebroadcast again. Microsoft already has this technology with movies and it’s really slick. Even if a movie is not showing you can tell Media Center if it ever is shown again (maybe in three weeks, maybe in three years) to automatically record. This way when you miss the Modest Mouse broadcast on Austin City Limits because you were not paying attention, you can still have Media Center record the program when it’s repeated a year from now and you’ve long since forgetten it.

This service by the way will be a boon for celebrity publicists looking to keep track of their high profile famous clients. You will be able to get Pub Sub and Technorati type searches, but for television. Don’t expect to see Thomas Hawk guest appearing on Law and Order anytime soon by the way.

Now the second big reason the guide needs an overhaul is micro content. Online spotlight is not the best place for this material. It will do for now and even for the 2005 update but what we need is integration. Television is becoming ubiquitous. The lines between what is broadcast TV and internetwork TV will increasingly begin to blur. My own back of the napkin rough estimate is that people will probably get somewhere between 70-80% of their content from traditional big media providers and 20-30% through alternative providers. If I am looking for “wine,” I just want to see shows on wine. I don’t want to look for wine once on the MCE guide and then again through a provider like Akimbo in Online Spotlight (who carries programming about wine by the way and will be in Media Center’s Online Spotlight early this Fall).

The guide needs to fully integrate all of the various micro content platforms currently being hosted at Online Spotlight. I’m not sure how the new guide will look. The linear layout of the guide at present may not be the best format for micro content. And certainly filtering tools for the new guide will become essential. As our selection goes up for every rare needle in a haystack that I find and love there is a ton of TV I know I never want to see (religious programming, shopping channels, Chinese TV, etc.)

My guess is that the enormous task of overhauling the guide best resides with the MSN TV folks. They may be the best place to tie all of the various mainstream and micro content together in a guide that pulls from both Zap2it and places like Akimbo, Brightcove, Tonic TV, DaveTV, Open Media, Our Media, Total Vid, Channel 9, the Internet Archive, etc. etc. etc. while at the same time integrating advanced closed captioning search. By the way, when you incorporate the micro content into the guide correctly, not only do I get the now 5 known instances of “Bill Gates” on network TV, but all kinds of Bill Gates archive video shows up as well, from the CES address to the WinHec show to yes, even the upcoming interview on Scoble’s Channel 9.

Overhauling the guide is not going to be easy, that’s for sure, but it’s something that needs to be done. And it’s best we get a head start on the work now because you can rest assured that our friends down at that little company on Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View that starts with a G and ends with an… well you know the rest, are already working on something very much like this as we speak.