The TV Revolution Will Be in Slow-Mo, Says Flingo CEO
Henry Blodget, the CEO and editor-in-chief of Business Insider, argued in a column this week that the television industry could suffer a sudden revenue collapse as consumers shift their TV viewing to on-demand, Internet-mediated services like Netflix and iTunes. Blodget thinks network and cable executives are in denial about the danger—just as newspaper publishers were until about 2001, when their advertising revenues really did go off a cliff.
I’ve offered arguments similar to Blodget’s in the past, and to be honest I’d like to believe they’re true, because I think the TV business needs a good jolt. But lately, people whom I trust in the media business have been telling me otherwise. They say the real shift to all-digital, on-demand TV consumption is going to be a long time coming, and that there will be plenty of opportunities along the way for both the media giants and small startups to try out new business models.
One of those people is Ashwin Navin, who’s best known as the co-founder of BitTorrent Inc. and has spent the last four years building a new TV-tech company called Flingo. The San Francisco startup, which raised $8 million this February in a financing round led by August Capital, is betting that an array of new digital services will pop up alongside traditional TV, but that consumers will be very slow to let go of old-fashioned “linear” TV, meaning the programming being pushed to them live by their cable providers.
“We have 50 percent DVR penetration in this country, but 85 percent of TV watching is still live,” says Navin, who is Flingo’s CEO. “The behavior is built in. People aren’t voting with their feet.”
Flingo’s answer is to create technology to help bridge the Web and traditional TV. The company started out building software that video publishers could use to bundle up their content into “channels” for delivery via devices like the Roku Player or Internet-connected TVs. If you subscribed to the TMZ channel or the Funny or Die channel on your Roku box, for example, Flingo was the company powering it. But the company soon pivoted to what Navin now believes is a much bigger market: tools to help developers and publishers build apps that interact directly with linear programming.
For anybody who wants to build an app that interacts with TV, the first step is simply figuring out what the user is watching. So Flingo built a video “fingerprinting” engine that can suck in a short snippet of video, extract key features, compare this signature to a database of past signatures, and—within a second or two—determine what show the video is from. (It’s like the Shazam app for identifying song titles, except it produces an answer a lot faster, because Flingo has more information to work with.) Flingo’s algorithms are part computer vision, and part real-time search and pattern-matching; co-founder and chief technology officer David Harrison, who was also the top engineer at BitTorrent, is a hard-core computer vision PhD who did his postdoc in a computer-vision in the Berkeley Video and Image Processing Lab.
Navin describes Flingo’s service as “GPS for television,” in the sense that it provides contextual data that can be tapped to enhance other services. “Yelp and Google Maps and all these other great apps would be really difficult to use without GPS,” he points out. “Identifying video signals—independent of the delivery mechanism, whether it’s cable, satellite, or over-the-air—could be just as significant, and could help smart TV applications go from being kind of a novelty to being really valuable to the user. The only difference [between GPS and Flingo] is that the TV industry is much, much bigger.” The company is simultaneously working with TV manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Sony, and Vizio to integrate its software into their next-generation smart TVs, and with TV networks like Fox, A&E, and Showtime to come up with interesting ways to apply the information.
What I find intriguing about Flingo is that it’s looking for ways to succeed in the TV industry without trying to undermine the industry’s existing business models, the way some bigger players, like Netflix, Apple, or Google, seem intent on doing. This theme—about using Internet tools to enhance rather than reinvent the TV experience—came up over and over in my talks with Navin. (I visited Flingo for the first time in the fall of 2011, and went back for an update earlier this week.) What follows is an edited version of our conversations.
Wade Roush: How does a guy who was the co-founder of BitTorrent, the file sharing service that was in some ways the bane of the entertainment industry, become the head of a company that’s working so closely with the TV industry?
Ashwin Navin: BitTorrent was very successful with a population of technology early adopters. A hundred million or so people use it every month around the world. We couldn’t get the mass market to use BitTorrent, but we saw that the mass market was hungry for better content experiences. We started this company believing we could … Next Page »