A telling moment for the future of 9×9.tv, a video discovery startup headquartered in Silicon Valley, came in January. That’s when chief operating officer Jack Chang bumped into a YouTube product manager inside the Samsung pavilion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The employee was running a YouTube kiosk inside the Samsung booth, showing off the YouTube apps on Samsung mobile gadgets, and he and Chang fell into a conversation about the overwhelming volume of videos the site attracts. “He says, ‘I work for YouTube but I don’t even know where to start, not only because of the sheer amount of content out there but because of all the fresh content being uploaded every second,’” Chang recounts. “He clearly has a problem. I explain our dayparting algorithm in 30 seconds. He immediately gets it and says, ‘Now I have a reason to watch YouTube!’ I thought that was very enlightening.”
You may never have heard of “dayparting,” but you know very well what it is. It’s the traditional practice in broadcast television of rotating through different types of content as the day progresses: news shows in the early morning, game shows and soap operas during the day, more newscasts at the dinner hour, prime-time dramas in the evening, and finally late-night comedy and talk. The comfortingly familiar pattern is as old as television itself—in fact, it’s an invention of the radio era.
|What’s On? A Dozen Video Discovery Sites and Apps|
Up to now, there has been no similar routine for regulating the world of online video. And that’s obviously part of the point: videos on YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu, Vevo, and other sites are available for viewing on demand, at 3 pm or 3 am. There’s no network executive telling you when you can watch Gangnam Style, Nora the piano-playing cat, or Charlie bit my finger again. Which is a wonderful thing—it’s part of the reason so many people are gleefully cutting the cord and scrapping their cable TV subscriptions.
But there’s a downside to this lack of structure. As scholars in psychology, business, and behavioral economics have been pointing out over the last few years—and as the YouTube product manager at CES noted—too much choice can lead to paralysis. Sometimes you just want turn on the tube—or the YouTube, as the case may be—and be entertained, without having to spend time searching for good content.
And that’s where 9×9.tv comes in. In December, the company introduced an app for Android smartphones and tablets that uses old-fashioned dayparting to organize YouTube content into daily cycle resembling the television of yore. (The app also works on Google TV, the search giant’s set-top box.)
At any given moment, 9×9 shows nine YouTube channels suited to the time of day in the users’ time zone. That might mean CNN’s YouTube channel in the morning, Ellen DeGeneres at mid-day, The Travel Channel in the late afternoon, the PBS News Hour over dinner, America’s Got Talent during prime time, and Comedy Central before bed (see the sample schedule on page 2).
9×9.tv is betting that people filling fragments of time by watching videos on their mobile gadgets will welcome the predictability the app provides. “These are decades-old habits,” says Chang. “The concept we are trying to execute toward is ‘less is more.’”
Santa Clara, CA-based 9×9.tv is just one of many companies stepping forward to help consumers get a grip on the exploding world of online video, whether that means user-generated clips like David After the Dentist or network-produced shows. We’ve told you in the past about social-discovery apps like ShowYou that highlight videos mentioned by your Facebook and Twitter friends, apps like Sidereel and NextGuide that tell you where your favorite shows are playing, and pure search sites like Blinkx that are doing their best to index the hundreds of millions of hours of content now available online. What’s new is that a few companies like 9×9.tv—and YouTube itself, to a large extent—are shifting back toward the venerable idea of channels and schedules to help consumers navigate the sea of viewing options.
9×9.tv is one of the first video-discovery apps to focus on the Android ecosystem before turning to Apple—the app isn’t yet available for iOS devices, though Chang says the company would like to make that happen. It’s also one of the first to introduce a significant element of algorithmic filtering. In other words, the app is telling you what you should watch, rather than making you do a search, or sifting through your social-media feeds to see what your friends are watching.
9×9’s parent company TelTel, which has offices in Silicon Valley, Taiwan, and Beijing, was founded in 2005 by telecom entrepreneur Sherman Tuan, and it’s a relative latecomer to the online video business. The company started out offering voice-over-Internet services, and accumulated a couple million customers before Skype and other services commoditized the business.
“We had to decide what else we could do with this backbone network, so we jumped into new media,” says Chang. “A lot of folks are trying to bring online content to the TV, but we haven’t seen any home runs yet. We asked, what are the things we can learn from these failures, and how can we make something more spectacular?”
|Dayparting: A Sample 9×9.tv Schedule|
|The Huffington Post|
|The Wall Street Journal|
|The Ellen DeGeneres Show|
|The Jerry Springer Show|
|Just for Laughs Gags|
|Oprah Winfrey Network|
|The Travel Channel|
|7pm-8pm||Al Jazeera Global|
|The Associated Press|
|PBS News Hour|
|The Wall Street Journal|
|8pm-10pm||America’s Got Talent|
|College Humor Originals|
|The Fine Bros|
|Jimmy Kimmel Live|
|Late Night with Jimmy Fallon|
|The Laugh Factor|
|Shut Up! Cartoons|
The company spent most of 2011 and 2012 in stealth mode, “trying to bring the best in online content to our audience in a way that’s fun, easy to discover, and engaging,” says Chang. It settled on the 9-channel approach, and developed a curation system that’s partly automated, and partly human curated. The company’s algorithms use 23 different attributes to scan top YouTube channels and suggest content appropriate to each time of day. Staff editors review the choices before they’re pushed out to the app. “They put the human touch to it and organize the channels based on past experience from watching TV,” says Dan Lee, 9×9.tv’s chief content officer.
There’s nothing special or scientific about the number 9, by the way—it just seemed like “the right amount of content so users don’t get overwhelmed,” Chang says. (It may not be a total coincidence that before the advent of the 500-channel cable universe, U.S. households had access to roughly the same number of broadcast channels.)
The 9×9.tv app, which is available for free in the Google Play app store, takes advantage of programming tools YouTube released in 2012 to make it easier for Android developers to show YouTube videos inside their mobile apps. When you click on a channel in the 9×9.tv lineup, you can watch it immediately in the app, or—if you have a Google TV—“beam” it to the big screen and use the app as a remote control. (Swiping up and down changes channels, and swiping left and right changes videos within a channel.)
Right now the app only shows YouTube videos, but “it won’t stop there,” Chang says. “We happen to use that because there is a lot of good content, and because YouTube already spent a lot of time on channelization.”
Channelization, for those unfamiliar with the term, is what YouTube did over the past few years when it pushed content creators to organize their videos into channels that are easy for partners like 9×9 to tap into. The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which has a whopping 4.4 million subscribers and has been viewed more than 1.7 billion times, has been organized into one such channel. But Chang says 9×9.tv is already working with individual TV stations, including many in Taiwan and other parts of Asia, to get their shows into the app and let them curate their own channels. The company also plans to recruit individual content curators who could have their own channels within the app and, in theory, split future revenues from in-app advertising with the creators.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 people have installed the 9×9.tv app on their Android devices so far, according to statistics at the Google Play store. So far, the company has been relying on word of mouth to drive downloads. But Chang and Lee say they think more and more consumers will gravitate to the TV-like experience.
“People have very fragmented pieces of time during the day to use their mobile devices,” Lee says. “During that time they have to think of something to watch, find it, and then take the time to watch it. We want them to be able to just turn it on and start enjoying. It’s like the magic of TV—you turn it on and after flipping a couple of channels you are glued to it.”
Maybe we haven’t cut the cord so cleanly after all.