Wolk’s Week in Review: NBCU teaching TV new tricks, DirecTV and Dish mess with local broadcasters

Wolk's Week In Review

1. NBCU Teaching TV New Tricks

NBCU rolled out a bunch of new tricks at its One24 tech huddle this week, including Gen AI-identified segments based on emotion and “MustShop TV” for the Olympics and a handful of Bravo and Peacock shows.

Both tactics have been discussed at great length over the past year or two, often in this very column, and while NBCU’s plans still fall into the “experimental” bucket, it’s heartening to see someone actually trying it.

Targeting based on emotions is not a new idea—brands ran ads on sitcoms for years because they were funny and they figured people would be in a good mood while they were watching

Neither is shoppable content. The idea for that has been around since “Jennifer Aniston’s Sweater” referred to an original series rather than a beloved rerun. 

What’s new is the technology behind both and how it might actually give them some runway this time.

Why it matters

Using Gen AI to analyze scenes for targeting purposes makes a whole lot of sense.

That’s because the metadata on TV sucks. 

No, really.

When TV shows were digitized, no one really gave much thought to how to tag everything, and so you wound up with a lot of “Seinfeld-Comedy” and “Seinfeld S2E14” and whatnot. 

So no clue as to anything like who is in the episode, what happens, are there any products or services mentioned that a brand would want to be aware of, for reasons either positive or negative. 

It’s also smart as a way to give TV a competitive advantage over digital, which is television’s actual enemy—not the other legacy TV networks.

Emotional targeting is something that Google and Facebook have been up to for a while, but there’s way more emotion in a TV program than on a website, so both the correlation and the resonance are dialed up to 11.

Creating specific categories brands can buy against programmatically makes sense too—take news shows, for example.

Brands often shy away from news shows because well, who really wants their ad running against a murder, a tornado or an air raid siren.

But that is only a small part of what’s on a news program.

Much of the time is given over to feel good stories like the local woman celebrating her 105th birthday or service pieces like “How To Make the Most of Your Beach Vacation.” All of which is very advertiser safe.

One final advantage to contextual targeting is that it eliminates any privacy concerns. Consumers are not being targeted because of who they are, but rather, because of what they are watching. 

That’s a huge, huge win at a time when privacy concerns are gaining traction with both consumers and Congress.

Then there’s shopping.

NBCU is trying out a range of new tech here, the most intriguing being something called NBCUniversal Checkout that will be available on Xfinity’s X1 entertainment platform during Bravo’s Top Chef. The service, which would seem to rely on the fact that NBCU has Xfinity customers’ credit card information, will allow for the sort of seamless shopping experience that Amazon can currently offer, which means consumers don’t need to use their remote to enter their street and email addresses, a major W. 

Whether consumers will trust it, is, of course, another story, but it’s easy enough to see Top Chef fans ordering the ingredients and/or the cookware directly from the TV set with the push of a button.

Yes, Chef.

What you need to do about it

If you are NBCU, or any of the other TV networks for that matter, you need to remember that shoppable content is not meant for every show, but rather, certain shows and that something that allows people to buy the product at the end, once they’ve finished watching, is likely going to be more popular than one where you need to pause the show.

If for no other reason than that TV is often a group activity and no one wants to wait while you figure out how to buy that 10-inch non-stick skillet.

I’ll even give you this freebie: years ago (12 of them to be exact) when I was working at a company called Piksel, we had developed a phone app that would collect all the ads you’d seen while you were watching a show. You could then go into the app and choose to learn more about the product and/or buy it.

No reason you can’t do the same thing for items from the show.

Final note: Remember that most of the companies that spend nine-digit budgets on TV are not looking to sell anything. They’re all about branding, aka “upper funnel” and that’s really all they are looking for.

So as you’re planning, don’t leave those big spenders out and work with them to figure out ways that your new shopping and contextual targeting capabilities can allow them to plus up their upper funnel sales pitches.

2. DirecTV And Dish Mess With Local Broadcasters

One vestige of the golden age of cable that has not disappeared are the frequent disputes about carriage and retrans fees that subsequently lead to blackouts.

Which is why it is notable that DirecTV and Dish have both come out with plans that allow users to opt out of receiving their local broadcast stations and save some money. ($12/month in the case of DirecTV.)

While the plan may ostensibly be aimed at keeping potential cord cutters by allowing them to save money, the reality is that by giving up local broadcasters, viewers also give up all the network news, sports and prime time programming that come with them, which, in most cases, is the whole reason the viewer still has a pay TV subscription in the first place.

I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m just not seeing millions of people out there holding on to pay TV just so they can watch Bravo, The History Channel and TBS. KWIM?

Why it matters

One big reason why Dish and DirecTV are the ones creating this offer is because they can.

Legally, that is.

As satellite companies, they are not subject to the must-carry rules that cable operators face, the ones that say they need to offer local broadcast stations in their lowest-priced tier, lest they face the wrath of the FCC.

So there’s that and then there are all the beefs they’ve been having with the likes of Sinclair and Tegna and other major network groups over the aforementioned retrans fees. (Retrans are for broadcast, carriage for cable.)

So at some level it’s an attempt to gain an upper hand in those blackout disputes by allowing them to point to a whole bunch of consumers who are fine without any broadcast networks. 

On another, it’s a test to see how much uptake there is for a cable-only package among cost-conscious consumers.

And then there’s the fact that, if push comes to shove, it might not even be legal for satellite providers, that the FCC and/or Congress might decide that they too have to include broadcast networks after all.

There’s also a more macro level, “3D chess” kind of play, and that’s about something few people ever want to say out loud: the broadcast networks have considered what the damage would be if they cut the local stations out of the picture and moved all of their programming to streaming. 

At some level, they’re wondering what the benefit is from cutting them in, when they can easily stream all their programming directly from their own SVOD apps or FASTs and would anyone care if they did that.

Maybe not in 2024, but in 2029, or 2033. (Things happen slowly in this business.)

Something to think about.

What you need to do about it

If you are an MVPD, it’s unlikely that the FCC will let you drop local broadcast any time soon. It’s just not a very popular position to take politically. And on the off chance the FCC says yes, you can rest assured an enterprising Congressperson will decide forcing you back into the pen is a great way to make a name for themselves.

If you are a broadcast station or a company that owns many local broadcast stations, this is a good wake-up call to get all of your streaming ducks in order. 

At some point in the next decade or so, network prime time will go the way of the VHS player, and you’d better have a viable Plan B to make up for it. There are all sorts of options on that, and we’ll be discussing them weekly in our new Proximity section, so be sure to check it out.

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. He is the author of the best-selling industry primer, Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry. Wolk frequently speaks about changes in the television industry, both at conferences and to anyone who’ll listen.

Week in Review is an opinion column. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of StreamTV Insider.