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TVRank: Tell Me What People Are Watching

By - March 22, 2006

TvI’ve been thinking about television lately. It’s not like I spend an inordinate amount of time watching TV – my relationship to the medium is mostly moderated by Tivo. The damn thing crashes every two to three days (I know, that’s not normal, I need to figure out why, but WHY do I have to figure out why?!). But still, I love it. Never would give it up. It’s like the Macintosh, you know? Finicky, but great in bed.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about television. And here’s why.

The other day I was at my gym, on my way back from a yoga class. Yeah, I know how that sounds, but don’t bash it till you’ve tried it. OK, so I’m walking past the communal flat screen in the men’s locker room, the screen that is usually tuned to CNBC or ESPN – both lowest common denominators of male communality. From time to time an old movie might be on, or a perhaps a rerun of Cheers, but 98 percent of the time it’s sports or business. Given that the remote is shared among half-naked men who barely know each other, CNBC and ESPN are pretty much the safest bets to be found.

But that day, as I strolled past the screen in a post yoga haze (it’s not unlike getting stoned, without the tendency to talk like a Berkeley sophomore), sports and business were nowhere to be found. Instead, the set was inexplicably tuned to Fox News.

Now, I will acknowledge a bias here. I don’t like Fox News much. It strikes me as an intellectually dishonest form of news, but then again, one could argue that about any news outlet. Regardless, what the damn channel had on was simply impossible to ignore.

At first glance it was clear that Fox was covering a trial, and the coverage was live (that was declared in traditional cable news fashion – an unavoidable “LIVE” in the upper right hand corner of the screen, if I recall.) Fox had split the remaining real estate into three windows. In the lower right was a man, head down, clearly a beaten soul, clad in what appeared to be a prison jumpsuit. He had the demeanor of an admonished child, but this child had the countenance of an alcoholic, or an insomniac, or possibly both.

In the center was a live feed of a judge, a man who was, well…. struggling to explain his point. Watching him speak, it seemed he was attempting to justify a decision he didn’t much like: he seemed to be praying for an eloquence that escaped him, some way to express the reasoning behind the decision he was about to impart. He had been speaking for some time, it seemed, and given he had not yet found his groove, he also seemed prepared to speak for some time to come. An air of impossibility encumbered his demeanor – this was a man grasping to explain something that, in the end, simply cannot be explained.

In the lower left corner were the victims. They were nameless, mute, anxious, determined. I recall the central figure was a motherly woman, but I could be wrong. For this telling, it matters little.

And in the center at the bottom, as is the practice of cable news, Fox had placed a headline, something along these lines: “Murderer To Be Sentenced For Killing 14 Year Old Girl.” To the right of the headline was a thumbnail picture of an adolescent woman, clearly the victim. She was blond, as I recall.

In a second or less, Fox News had communicated this simple fact: A Man Will Be Condemned Today. Stay Tuned, And Watch It Live.

At that moment, in that locker room, there wasn’t a man – clad or not, dripping wet or dressed and ready to leave – who didn’t stop and stare at the screen. It was a captivating – and exploitative – moment. We were watching, “LIVE”, mind you, a judge struggling with whether or not to sentence a man to die. How could you NOT watch?

So what happened? I have no idea. I turned away. I couldn’t watch anymore. Maybe that’s just me, but it felt, well, too intimate. But as I showered and got dressed, I thought about that moment. And it made me wonder – what might television be like if moments like that Fox News coverage became, well, instantly searchable? What if there was some kind of TelevisionRank that noticed, in real time, what people were paying attention to, right now? Where moments like the condemned man rose to the top of a television index in real time, so that at any time, anyone could ask of the web: What are people watching, right now?

Wow. Now that would be powerful. Is it possible? Oh hell yeah, it is. And it’s coming in the next five years, I’ll wager. It’s pretty much Technorati mashed up with Neilsen, YouTube, and Comcast. And when it happens, we’ll never see television in the same light again. I, for one, can’t wait.

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29 thoughts on “TVRank: Tell Me What People Are Watching

  1. New York says:

    > Wow. Now that would be powerful. Is it possible? Oh hell yeah, it is.

    TiVo already has the framework in place – and has been demonstrating it for the past several years with its most watched Super Bowl moments…

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    TiVo will make what people are watching *right now* not as interesting, as people begin to stagger their programs. Might be interesting for breaking news, but not much for even popular, current shows, like American Idol. Now, I do think there’s some work around determining popularity based on all sorts of factors: how quickly do people watch it after it’s recorded, how many times do they watch it, is it saved or not, for how long is it saved, how much do they fast forward, how long are their pauses, how many people don’t watch ’till the end. Then, it would be interesting to correlate genres of programs, etc. to get some fascinating numbers. Nielsen++.

  3. Porgie says:

    > What if there was some kind of TelevisionRank that
    > noticed, in real time, what people were paying attention
    > to, right now? Where moments like the condemned man rose
    > to the top of a television index in real time, so that
    > at any time, anyone could ask of the web: What are
    > people watching, right now?

    I guess you never saw Max Headroom series from the 80’s.

    – glt

  4. Duncan says:

    I’ll enjoy this when I can see what my social network is watching and enjoying. I think aggregate viewership data would just accelerate the race to the bottom in terms of programming. IE more sex, violence, celebrity worship, and mind numbing infotainment. Not that there is anything wrong with that. πŸ˜‰

    BTW nice job on CNN this morning.

  5. Sam Sethi says:

    Hi John

    We are developing a product called “Liquid Lists” which dynamically change based on your attention and those of others. i.e Global, Local, Domain or Trusted Friends. We demo’d this to Marc Canter, Scoble, Kim Cameron and they all thought we were spot on with our inmplementation of a dicovery engine based on users attention. I would like to add you to our alpha testing program if you are interested. We have versions for PC, Mobile and MediaCenter PC today. Finally we have amodel where we pay you for publishing your attention.



    P.S Are you over in the Uk anytime soon. Marc, Alex are attending/speaking at Content 2.0 in June in the UK.

  6. Stewart says:

    I always wondered what data could be gleaned from the use of the mute button…

  7. Erik says:

    Well, one potential problem is that I fall asleep watching Comedy Central. So we need to make sure that the 3am “Larry the Cable Guy” special doesn’t get the same cred as Colbert. Some sort of “consciousness ping,” maybe?

  8. Mr Wave Theory thinks that there is a Bubble 2.0 for Web 2.0 and Most Analysts Are Overestimating the Size of Google’s Total Addressable Market for Internet Advertising

    I am sick and tired of hearing analysts make wild projections about Google’s growth prospects based on wild projections about the size of Google’s total addressable market.

    Continued …

  9. Greg Linden says:

    Stefanie Olsen at CNet reported in Nov 2004 that Google might be working on something like this, at least the search part, if not the attention part.

    From her article:

    Google’s project for TV search is ultra-secretive; only a handful of broadcast executives have seen it demonstrated so far. To build the service, the company is recording live TV shows and indexing the related closed-caption text of the programming. It uses the text to identify themes, concepts and relevant keywords for video so they can be triggers for searching.

    The software allows people to type in keywords, such as “Jon Stewart,” to retrieve video clips of the comedian’s TV appearances, marked with a thumbnail picture with some captioning text, for example. Refining the search results for the show “Crossfire” would display a page that looks similar to a film reel, with various still images paired with excerpts of closed captioned text of the now-infamous fight between Stewart and CNN’s “Crossfire” hosts. The searcher could click on and watch a specific segment of the show.

    Full text of her article is at

  10. Phil Walder says:

    This very service is already available in France through the 9Neuf system, where viewers can see what percentage of people are watching which channel in real time, ranked in the EPG.
    This is a straighforeward feature of the Netgem set top box and software.

  11. SorenG says:

    Fascinating, but will this mean that some group will have to “know” and record what I am watching at all times? Maybe first we need to do it online — where in this moment right now are the websites that most users are visiting — not over a month, but right now.

    Also, I second the benefits of yoga.

  12. John,

    Basically you are talking about recall and recall measurement to figure out efficacy. Watch the news releases over the coming days for an annoucement of a firm. I will be happy to speak to you about it once the announcement comes out. There are larger firms out there than what you expected.


  13. Robi says:

    In my mind, the question is really which one of the myriad approaches that’s underway will really connect with users. It doesn’t even have to be as few as one, but right now, none of them appear to be that engaging. From’s very active approach of driving all tv via the community to Tivo’s very passive approach of publishing most Tivo’d moments and shows, right now none of them are more than just “interesting”. I agree that something along the lines of what you talk about is coming, but right now it almost feels like the cable companies are fighting it. In my mind, if they were REALLY smart, they’d be implementing this now, just to help viewers move among their 500+ channels. But, I suppose the argument is that making that easier decreases ad viewing..hmmm. Sounds like an ad opportunity πŸ™‚

  14. Joker says:

    Most definitely where we’re headed and just by reading some of the comments above, it looks like we’re already behind if France is currently using this service.

    Imagine one more step further where they employ demographics: how many people in this specific age bracket are watching what?

  15. Isn’t the whole point of TiVo that nobody is watching right now? πŸ™‚

    Actually I’d love a vertical bar that visualized out of 200 or so million Americans just how many are watching this show right now over the course of the show. And I could click on the bar to go to the channel that the most people are watching just to see what it is.

    I wonder if knowing how tv shows are ranked in real time would change the rankings all by itself, just as critics can have an effect on viewership. If you are watching a show and you realize that nobody else is watching, are you likely to keep watching?

    Imagine how fast the networks would kill shows if they had a constant window into that information and the viewership was low.

  16. MB says:

    I’ve always hoped that Nielsen’s Portable People Meter (which ostensibly removes the human from the media exposure measurements) would be wildly successful (as in accurate), as I imagine that it would blow apart the television/radio industries. The advertising/mass media industries are castles made of sand, and the moment that advertisers are able to see the actual numbers of viewers/listeners will be the moment that it all comes apart.

  17. isb says:

    I think that TelevisionRank would be more useful if it was computed for multiple time-scales. I doubt if many people would want to know “what is popular *right now*” unless they don’t know what they want to watch and just want to kill some time. Most of the time people have a good idea of any time-sensitive live broadcast that they want to see (like a live sports event for example).
    Instead it would be more interesting if they could search for the top TV programs over today/past week/month and so on across different genres.

  18. Manuel says:

    Hello I comes from Austria and by coincidence into the Blog came, you writes here over a Intressantes topic at opportunity would like I with it to enter more in greater detail and express, but to me still different Blogs regard to I defenitiv commit myself. Until soon and kind regards from the alpine country Manuel.

  19. Joe Hunkins says:

    Cool, and when you extend this beyond TV to the entire DeviceOsphere it’s what Tim O’Reilly’s been talking about lately where the ocean of data is mashed into applications and interpreted by the global collective intelligence of the new web. Evolution has not prepared us well for the maelstrom of data – I wonder how we’ll handle it?

  20. JanM says:

    I am a researcher at Alcatel Telecom and we made a social TV experience called AmigoTV. Have a look at the whitepaper here.

    AmigoTV is designed that you can see who of your friends are watching (Amigo)TV. You can see which channel they are watching and even the content/TV show. So it’s like you can see what your friends are watching. Furthermore you can watch together with friend, who are on another location then yourself, a TV show. You are even able to use your voice to talk to each other while looking at the show, so you can discuss the show with your friends in real time. Or when you really like a show, you can invite friends over to watch the same show with you. It is up to you if you want to talk to each other are not. So our solution is a bit different but hell it is easy to get in contact with your friends and learn what they are watching and the possibility is very high that you like the stuff they are watching as well. So far my 5 cents πŸ™‚

  21. Jane says:

    @JanM now you are on Amigo TV under total observation why must this be where you can see what your best friend is watching? I donΒ΄t want it that anyone can watch what I prever to see.

  22. Todd says:

    Can’t wait for the day my computer/tivo/cable box/monitor/tv/etc. are all one slick device. (and it’s not called a Microsoft media center)

  23. Richie says:

    Have you looked at That’s the best TV site I’ve found on the web and seems to be a good indication of what’s hot and not. As well, you can track your favorite shows and get updates on reviews, news, and blog posts around your favorite programs.

  24. Hello I come from Turkey and by coincidence into the Blog came, you write here over a Intressantes topic at opportunity would like I with it to enter more in greater detail and express, but to me still different Blogs regard to I defenitiv commit myself. Until soon and kind regards from the alpine country Manuel.

  25. In Tv? Of course we watch football.

  26. ordas says:

    people watching every .hit on TV…!

  27. ordas says:

    people watching every .hit on TV…!

  28. ordas says:

    people watching every .hit on TV…!

  29. ordas says:

    people watching every .hit on TV…! πŸ™‚