Misunderstanding The Backwards EPG

6th January 2016: our original blog, published on 29th November last year, has been revised to incorporate new research data we have received.  We are pleased to include this in relation to discussion of the 1st generation backwards EPGs below.

At the launch of the new SkyQ system recently, there was one feature (or lack of it) which struck us odd.  The proposed system currently doesn’t have a backwards EPG, or any deep integration with catch-up from linear broadcast.  When we asked why, we were told that ‘our consumer research shows that only a small number of people use them to access catch-up’.  We would make three points:
– You can’t disadvantage any users, however small the user base
– Current backwards EPGs aren’t good enough to use as a research benchmark
– It sounds like the research was asking the wrong question

Don’t disadvantage any users
A small point but it is a basic rule of interface design that you don’t remove or restrict functionality if only a small number of people use it.  If only 10% of people use the current EPGs to access catch-up, then not putting one in a new system denies at least 10% of your customer base a function they would use.  However, as we will discuss below, we don’t believe the 10% research.

Current backwards EPGs aren’t good enough
Any consumer research that is based on working with users of the current crop of backwards EPGs is bound to fail as the current versions (with one exception) aren’t good enough to be considered models to copy or for their user research to be useful.  It is no wonder that research using these current models shows low use of the catch-up link.  Some are too poor to use.

There are three very different types of backwards EPG on the market.  Virgin, YouView and Freeview Play offer what could be defined as 1st generation backwards EPGs in that they allow a consumer to track left and find catch-up content.  As an aspiration this is good, but consumers tell us that the most important time for a backwards link to catch-up is the preceding two hours (anything earlier than that and its easier to go to ‘Search’ or the catch-up menu).  However, some platforms fail here in that their backward EPGs often don’t work for up to an hour after broadcast (for Virgin, its often longer).  This creates a ‘dead-zone’ that kills all value in the backwards function.  Viewers find the programme they want doesn’t work and they end up having to scan around just to find a programme that does. It is no surprise that many give up on the function.

Our instinct was that this problem applied equally across Virgin, YouView and Freeview Play – though it appears it affects some platforms more than others.  From conversations with our friends at YouView, we understand that – on the platform – the channels on the first page of the EPG (including all of the main PSB channels) make over 60% of their content available, over 65% in primetime (allowing for natural gaps in news, sport and films, among other content genres).  Across its PSB shareholders, on average 92.2% of the backwards EPG is available within three minutes of the end of transmission of a particular programme.  Across non-PSB channels (excluding STV), this falls to 86%.  YouView estimates that the backwards EPG is at the root of at least a third of all VOD viewing (which half of its 2m+ connected homes use each week).  Clearly the issue of the ‘dead-zone’ is one that appears to affect some platforms disproportionately more than others.

Freesat Freetime can be categorised as a 2nd generation backwards function in that it only shows catch-up programmes that are ready to play. This doesn’t solve the problem of programmes not being available in the ‘dead-zone’ of the preceding hour, but it does mean viewers aren’t clicking on programmes that won’t play.  In this limited ambition it is quite successful however, the Freetime EPG fails on a significant other user case (see ‘You’re asking the wrong question’ below).

Finally, there is the EE set top box – a 3rd generation backwards EPG.  This box has blurred the boundaries of linear and catch-up more than any other and should be the benchmark against which  all the other platforms are measured.   This box uses a very clever PVR to buffer all the main channels onto its hard drive.  This means it can offer true ‘start-over’  so you don’t even have to wait for a show to finish before starting the catch-up version. You can click on a programme that is half-way through, and start from the beginning. This completely blurs the distinction between programmes on ‘now’ and those that just finished.  A viewer can move seamlessly forward and back in time.  Our research shows that consumer absolutely love the freedom this delivers and use it to access catch-up far more than previous boxes.  Very often they are unaware that they have drifted back into catch up – they think they are just watching telly.   The Sky box needed to be at least as good as this to be even in consideration as an advanced box.

You’re asking the wrong question
Finally, if your research only focusses on the backwards EPG as a route to catch-up then you are asking the wrong questions.   You are failing to research the most important user-case for the functionality – delivering better schedule information.  Our research shows that the vast majority of viewers use the backwards EPG to check simple bits of programme and schedule information, asking really basic questions like:
– Have I just missed anything interesting?
– What was on before this one?
– I thought a programme was on tonight, was it on earlier?
– When did this programme start?
– Should I go to the +1 channel?

Viewers derive massively utility to being able to move quickly backwards and forwards in the newer EPGs to check on simple schedule information like this.  Old EPGs fail to answer these questions.  Viewers with old platforms tell our researchers that they find it very frustrating that information that was previously on screen is removed once it goes past the ‘on now’ time. We have all been trained by the internet to expect access to ALL information, all the time.  In this day and age you can’t take away information that has already been on screen.  Any new TV platform that launches without this basic capability fails on the core usability test for a 21st century TV platform.

Why Did Sky Launch Without A Backwards EPG?
Pay TV platforms often highlight that a backwards function loses most of its relevance once you move off page 1 of the EPG, as most catch-up content comes from the major FTAs.  They have always worried that it makes their pay content look bad where there is no catch-up available.  We know these platforms balk at building functionality that delivers more benefit to the FTA channels than the pay channels.  So a backwards EPG may have been de-scoped in the build programme.  But this feels like Sky have fluffed a chance for innovation leadership and to deliver their version of a 3.0 backwards EPG.

Speaking as a customer, this is a poor excuse not to do it as we want that functionality and we especially want it around the FTA content.  The platforms need to realise that customers don’t just pay them for extra content.  We pay them to manage and provide functionality around our complete content use, and that FTA content is still the majority used content, even in a pay home. It may be hard for Sky to accept, but we need them to build all the best functionality so it works on the BBC, ITV and C4 first.  Then we will use it on the other content as well.

At the same time, we need the broadcasters to let them do it, even if it means giving up some control, because its what viewers want.  The current impasse with the BBC and the pay platforms over this does nothing but damage the BBC’s standing in the industry and in the eyes of the consumer.  Broadcasters have to realise that the platforms are in the driving seat when delivering functionality and let them get on with it.

Decipher Conclusion?
When Sky launched Sky On-Demand few years ago they did it without the catch-up content from the FTA broadcasters. We were told that ‘on-demand was a premium functionality that could only be offered on pay channels’.  Many of us pointed out at the time that this was unsustainable as SmartTVs and iPads had launched and many viewers could easily turn off Sky and access iPlayer and ITV Player on other devices.  It seemed more sensible to try and keep them within the Sky environment.  Within a short time, the policy changed and the FTA catch-up content arrived in the Sky boxes.
Our guess is that we are in a similar situation. The backwards EPG and deep catch-up integration capability will eventually appear in SkyQ and, most importantly, around the FTA content.  This will only happen once the platforms and broadcasters sort out the anti-consumer political posturing going on.

Nigel Walley


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