In Post-CD Era, Gracenote Makes a Big Business of Content Recognition

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old-fashioned electronic programming guides that organize shows according to channel and time. “The interfaces for TV listings have been pretty stale for a long time,” White says. And anyway, “Very few people outside of sports fans actually watch TV shows when they air.”

Using its metadata about video content, Gracenote has been able to construct snazzier interfaces that let users search broadcast schedules and streaming catalogs and see recommendations based on their viewing history. For Sony and Philips televisions sold in Europe, for example, Gracenote supplied a system called eyeQ that shows app, broadcast TV channels, and on-demand content on a single home screen. And if you have a Sony Xperia device, you can run your Sony TV using a Gracenote-powered programming guide that’s been shrunk down to tablet size.

White says Gracenote wants to enable even more “second screen” experiences where TV viewers are watching a show on their big screen and simultaneously interacting with related content on their tablets or smartphones. To sync up the two, Gracenote has built a content recognition system called Entourage that can listen to a TV show’s audio track, or even analyze the video signal, to figure out how far the program has advanced. NBC Universal’s Syfy Channel uses Entourage in its Syfy for iPad app to provide fans of two shows, Haven and Faceoff, with content such as challenges and character back-stories.

Entourage is also behind an experimental ad replacement technology that Gracenote showed off at CES. By monitoring the video signal, the system knows when a commercial is coming up, and seamlessly superimposes an ad downloaded from the Internet over the one in the broadcast signal. If the TV or set-top box equipped with the system also has some info about the viewer’s age, gender, and location, then it can “target advertisements to you based on what you care about and who you are,” White says.

The advertisers who paid for the submerged ads might not care for the whole idea. But “nobody is trying to start World War IV,” White says. “This is a $70 billion industry, and it’s really about how we increase the value to the advertiser and the consumer, and how we all participate in the upside that results.”

Gracenote was founded in 1998, the same year as Google, and in at least one way its rise has paralleled the search giant’s: both companies thrive by managing data about data. Gracenote arguably has the more difficult task, since songs and videos are much harder to interpret than HTML Web pages—and they come with a lot less metadata. But that’s exactly why people are willing to pay Gracenote for its services, whereas Google has always had to give its search results away for free and monetize them through advertising.

As a growing list of manufacturers and networks sign up to license Gracenote’s software and data, it’s starting to look like Christmas every day of the year.

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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