What’s Wrong with PayTV and How to Fix It

Graham Neray


Using a set-top-box is about as pleasant as doing your taxes, and only slightly less complicated. If cable companies and telcos don’t improve their services, they will lose control of the viewing experience. Then they will lose the viewer. Over-the-top (OTT) providers like Amazon and Netflix will be all too happy to take care of them.

Here’s what’s wrong with PayTV and how to fix it.

What’s Wrong with PayTV

  1. We’ll Do It Live. Users prefer to watch content on-demand (Neilsen) but live TV remains the center of service provider offerings. A user turns on her STB and she is taken first to the lowest-numbered live TV channel, not to the on-demand portal. And worse, these portals are slow, klunky and muddled with intrusive advertisements (see #4).

  2. One Size Fits All. A 25-year-old single male in Brooklyn gets the same experience as a 61-year-old grandmother in Boca Raton. Why?

  3. Married to the Set-top Box. OTT providers are the first to make their services available on new devices, like smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles. Service providers, however, cling to the set-top-box. They’re slow to support smartphones and tablets, and if they do so, they often provide limited content on those platforms.

  4. [Ab]user Experience. The TV user experience can be frustrating at best and broken at worst. The systems are slow to start up and slow to navigate. The user is bombarded with loud and irrelevant ads. Content discovery is perhaps the most offensive exercise. Search functionality is often unavailable; when it exists, it typically imposes a hard-to-use keyboard and spits out confusing results.

  5. A Snail’s Pace. Traditionally, STBs remain in the home for years at a time. Viewing guides and on-demand portals are seldom updated. Channel lineups evolve slowly. By contrast, companies like Amazon push code multiple times a day.

Although the status quo is anything but confidence-inspiring, service providers have a unique set of assets that can help them both defend their existing TV businesses and build new ones. The most valuable of these is their existing relationships with content providers, which are more robust than that of any OTT provider. Second, service providers have customer relationships with nearly every member of the population. Third, service providers are sitting on heaps of customer data, like viewing habits and demographic information.

If they can leverage these existing assets while also bringing their offerings into the twenty-first century, service providers can keep control of the viewer.

How to Fix It

Here are five steps to make it happen.

  1. Prioritize On-Demand. Service providers should put on-demand first and prioritize development of better portals for the user. Given the recent trend toward binge viewing, they should also leverage existing content relationships to provide an experience compatible with devouring shows in quick succession.

  2. Personalize. Service providers should take a page from the OTT playbook. They should target content to their users based on subscriber-specific data – like prior viewing or even browsing habits – as well as aggregate subscriber viewing data, demographics and social media.

  3. Expand Supported Devices. Instead of avoiding the issue, service providers should focus on creating apps for new devices and integrating them into existing services. They should make it easy for the user to switch from the TV to the tablet without losing her place. They could even integrate their services into other apps on the device. For instance, they could let users create calendar reminders to watch a live sporting event right from the viewing guide.

  4. Improve User Experience. Service providers must invest in simplifying the user interface by removing ad clutter and simplifying content categorizations; improving latency and performance; making search work; incorporating personalized recommendations and relevant reviews; and creating an interface that is aesthetically appealing and on par with what users expect.

  5. Iterate Quickly. Service providers ought to move toward a nimble and iterative approach to TV services in order to be more responsive to changes in user demand and competitive developments; and to foster greater experimentation and innovation.

To adopt a more iterative path to market, service providers can again learn from OTT providers. They should shift as much of the TV product to software versus hardware. The more easily they can update the viewing experience by shipping code instead of provisioning new hardware, the easier it will be to stay nimble. They should adopt agile, flexible development methodologies. They should leverage open-source software (and encourage their vendors to do so) to minimize lock-in, complex sales cycles and cost.

How to Do It

More broadly, service providers must ensure that the underlying infrastructure they are using is aligned with the broader business goals described here: prioritizing on-demand, personalizing services, expanding the number of supported devices, delivering a better user experience and iterating quickly.

There are a number of technological components required to deliver a market-leading TV service. The database is at the core, and it can be an enabler – or a blocker – to realizing this goal. A number of service providers have reevaluated its place in the TV stack and are instead using MongoDB, an open-source document database.

To learn more about how MongoDB can help you evolve your TV offerings, read our whitepaper, Today’s Database for Today’s TV.