If you’ve bought a TV in the past two years, the chances are it’s got technology which lets it monitor your viewing on the fly, from a little-known company called Gracenote.
The company has just launched a programme guide for LG TVs, and also powers listings in Philips, Sony and Loewe TVs and the many white-label brands made by Vestel.
But if you know Gracenote at all, it’s probably as the company which provides track listings when you rip a CD to MP3s on your home computer.
This is done with audio fingerprints that turn each song into a unique digital ID – and the same technique can be applied to TV and advertising soundtracks.
Gracenote’s TV guides don’t actually use audio fingerprints, although they do offer a dynamic experience, suggesting other choices depending on what you’re watching, from both live TV and on-demand or catch-up services.
“We’re trying to get away from the model of time and channel which has been with us since the Sixties, but just doesn’t work any more,” said Stephen White, president of Gracenote.
“People are going to migrate to smart TV, especially as content is increasingly unbundled from traditional cable and satellite services.”
On the LG Now TV guide, this could mean BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm, Netflix or YouTube, with a TV guide that lets you search for cast and crew for ideas to set up reminders and recordings, as well as film and TV titles.
The audio fingerprinting technology also lets companion apps track what you’re watching, so you can have all the features of the on-screen TV guide without interrupting what’s on TV.
TV guides are very much the foot in the door for Gracenote’s technology, though, and it’s the ability to get involved in advertising which has the TV makers excited.
Although consumers have been slow to connect up their smart TVs, the numbers are now big enough to interest the advertising industry.
Gracenote has expanded beyond audio fingerprinting into video fingerprinting, so it can always monitor what’s on the screen and build a profile of what you and your family watch.
“Over time, if there are always cartoons on in the morning then there’s probably a kid at home, or chat shows in the afternoon mean there’s a stay-at-home mom,” adds White.
Advertisers already work on general models like this, but if Gracenote suggests the viewer doesn’t match what they’re selling, then an advertiser could do something else.
They could supply sports car ad instead of a people carrier, or even choose to sell the ad-space to another brand – all performed automatically by Gracenote and delivered via your broadband connection.
Alternatively, advertisers can launch interactive ads for viewers they think might take notice of them, with extended videos.
It’s great news for TV manufacturers who are struggling to make a profit from their screens, and can take a slice of Gracenote’s income with each connected home.
The system is currently being trialled in the US, with support from most of the major broadcasters, and Gracenote expects to run tests in the UK in 2014.
Gracenote’s pitch is very much about turning ad breaks into something you’d want to watch instead of fast-forward past, although many people will be instinctively uneasy about their TV watching what they watch for such a slim benefit.
Audio recognition in your hand
The other side of Gracenote’s audio fingerprinting tech is found in tablets and phones, notably the Zeebox social TV guide app, and the SyFy channel’s app launched this summer.
Called Entourage, it enables internet-connected devices to listen to what you’re watching, and either instantly update the TV guide to that show, or do more interesting things.
On the SyFy Sync, which we profiled this April, it shows facts and viewers polls while you watch episodes of the channel’s flagship shows.
Zeebox uses Entourage for both interactive fun such as quizzes, and to trigger advertising in competition with what’s on the screen.
NBC in America has recently used Entourage to power a play-along game in real time for the Million Second Quiz, with the top player being flown to Hollywood to take part in the live show.
Unlike its major competitor, Shazam, White stresses that Entourage has the major strength that it doesn’t need to be activated – it’s always on and always listening if the app is running.
That makes it ideal for fun interactive ads, such as a Ford spot where the app asks you which car was featured in the ad – just to check you were paying attention. If you’re right, it earns you a badge you can share on social networks.
That might be take-it-or-leave-it for adults, but it’ll be Facebook or Twitter crack for teenagers with all their lovely disposable income.