TV for the really, really lazy

New personal recommendation services like ChoiceStream more accurately predict viewing choices, says Fortune's Stephanie Mehta.

By Stephanie Mehta, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune Magazine) -- If you like getting television and movie recommendations via the Web, you'll love getting them on your TV screen.

Online entertainment recommendations (as in, "if you liked 'Thelma and Louise,' you'll love 'Road House'") seem to be ubiquitous these days: Amazon (Charts), Netflix (Charts), Yahoo (Charts) and AOL are among the many sites that offer suggested reading and viewing, mostly based on a users' past purchases and ratings of movies, shows and books.

Now, technology and media companies are trying to find ways to improve those recommendations, and integrate them into your television viewing experiences. This week, satellite TV provider DirecTV (Charts) said it hired an outfit called ChoiceStream, which serves up personalized recommendations, to provide suggested viewing for its 15.5 million customers.

The service initially will be available online, but DirecTV and ChoiceStream executives say they would like to see the service migrate to the set-top box, where customers could get their recommendations while they are watching TV. "This is our first entry," says Karen Leever, senior vice president for directv.com, where the recommendation service will be offered. "But with DirecTV's new interactive capabilities, the possibilities are endless."

Such a service seems to be more suited to the couch-potato aesthetic of TV viewing - something marketers are generously describing as a "lean back experience." (Getting entertainment and information online is a "lean forward" kind of thing.)

Most people still want to sit down in front of the TV and simply find - or get directed to - good programming - they don't want to first go online and see what some Web sites suggest, or check their e-mail to see what recommendations might be in their in boxes.

In some ways, this is what TiVo tries to do, recording programming that the system thinks you'll like, sometimes with hilarious results. (In my house, TiVo constantly records "This Old House," based, I can only guess, on my guilty-pleasure viewing of "What Not to Wear;" it also repeatedly delivers to me a promotional film about the making of the HBO series "Rome." I can't explain that one.)

More personal recommendations

Steve Johnson, CEO of ChoiceStream, says his company's methodology for serving up relevant recommendations is particularly suited to television because it deals with what he called the "cold start" problem. Most recommendation services can do an okay job of suggesting content that's been around for a while by relying on collective user feedback and viewing patterns.

For example, people who like Schwarzenegger action movies are also likely to enjoy Bruce Willis' "Die Hard" films. But when content is brand new, or aired for the first time, that kind of collective data usually isn't available. (This, says Johnson, is the shortcoming of Netflix's recommendation service. A few months ago the company signaled dissatisfaction with its current recommender product, saying it would offer a $1 million prize to anyone who can build a better mousetrap.)

Johnson says ChoiceStream addresses this problem by incorporating lots of third party information. Its system collects information from reviews, promotional material and other data points in order to recommend new shows.

ChoiceStream also layers in personalization. Users answer a few basic questions - the process takes about 30 seconds - to help the system better understand preferences. The result, says Johnson, is more relevant, less cookie-cutter recommendations.

These services - and ChoiceStream is just one of many - are particularly interesting to cable, satellite and now telephone companies that eventually hope to offer video-on-demand services that promise to deliver an even greater assortment of video content.

In the past, video distributors focused on building better TV guides to help consumers navigate the proliferating number of video channels. But with literally millions of hours of viewing becoming available, consumers will need a better way to figure out what to watch.

If these new services work well, they'll win fans among content providers and consumers alike. I, for one, am looking forward to discovering programs beyond "This Old House."

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.