User personalization is a peach for European broadcasters

Plans by the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) and its members to establish a common platform for borderless online access to their content appear to have been scuppered by the recent surprising U-turn by the European Commission (EC) over geo-blocking of streaming services within the EU.

As we reported last week (EC U-turns on geo-blocking, driving stake into OTT heart), geo-blocking in other sectors including online shopping, roaming charges and use of credit cards abroad has been outlawed as expected, but the EC astonished many observers by u-turning over streaming services. This went in the face of earlier signals from the European Parliament including its draft law proposed in May 2017, which indicated it would ban rights holders confining online access to specific EU countries. Almost a year earlier in July 2016 Paramount Pictures had bowed to pressure from the EC to make movies it had licensed to Sky available wherever subscribers roam in the EU. This makes the U-turn all the more remarkable.

Even so the EBU is putting a brave face on the matter and encouraging broadcasters to continue their work on its user personalization project called Peach, even though this was founded on the principle that consumers should be able to access the content they want on the device, time and place of their choosing. Perhaps the EBU is expecting the EC to U-turn again after having caved into pressure from the very studios and content owners it had earlier resisted.

It is also true that Peach is supposed to embrace the whole of user personalization, focusing primarily on recommendation and single sign-on (SSO). The idea is firstly that users should only have to log-on once for all the content they have subscribed to, which itself is rather a lofty and distant aspiration and secondly that broadcasters should be able to serve them with the recommendations they really welcome. So the formal mission is to develop “the right tool for editorial teams to recommend the right content at the right time to the right person on the right device.” That pretty much implies no geo-blocking given that the EU is supposed to operate as a single market.

On the SSO front, the aim is enable broadcasters to provide a coherent personalized experience across different types of device. Those devices with limited input capability will be served via the ETSI TS 103 407 protocol developed initially under the EBU by many of the same people involved in Peach. This is aimed at lower security IP connected devices including some TVs and radios, allowing users to authenticate via a separate device, often a smart phone, or it could be a voice user interface such as Amazon Alexa. The key point is that at no time do the user’s account credentials pass through the low security IP connected device.

The most interesting aspect of Peach concerns its approach to content recommendation algorithms. The project seems rooted in the idea that in order for broadcasters to meet the challenge from the big Internet players, especially Google, they must resist attempts to wrest control of content search and recommendation. This is seen also as a major source of differentiation as well as control over the user base.

This work was led by two members of the EBU Technical Committee, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) of Germany, which is part of the ARD consortium, and Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) in Switzerland, which took the lead in dedicating developers to the project. This led to co-development of a data pipeline and software designed to help broadcasters personalize their recommendations.

This was built using the Scrum software development methodology, which is part of this ethos around micro-services and “agile methods”. It involves breaking down software projects into teams of three to nine developers who in turn prepare actions that can be completed within short time cycles for ongoing assessment and incorporation within the developing software, often on a daily basis. The theory is that the work of individual scrums can then be coordinated, aggregated or scaled up via the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) or Scrum of Scrums, among other techniques.

While this all sounds rather trendy, the EBU insisted that it has paid dividends within Peach, leading to development and implementation of a user personalization system within three months for the first broadcaster to deploy it earlier in 2017, RTS of Portugal. RTS has since been enhancing user profiles, preferences and notifications. Then as the tool becomes more widely distributed among EBU Members, the aim is that all the broadcasters will exploit data transmitted anonymously among themselves to facilitate increasingly accurate recommendations and provide an alternative avenue to getting into bed with Google. Again this implies absence of geo-blocking.

It will also require questions over data handling and privacy to be settled, but this is the same for Google or anyone else. There is then the question of developing deeper more descriptive content metadata, without which ventures such as Peach will fail to deliver maximum value and which is not a direct priority for the project.