Paul Cleghorn sent a ripple of sniggers through the crowd.
At an NMK event called Aggregators and Upsetters, the Tape It Off The Internet co-founder was amusing those assembled with what appeared to be a ‘laid-back designer’ attitude to the labyrinthine world of file-sharing and commercial downloading that is filling out the “edge” of the Internet with video content today. “We’ll work it out,” he said casually.
But despite appearances, his thesis was deadly serious. TV’s ad-funded model, he believed, meant that the transition to online was going to be a different kettle of fish to the bloodbath that had met the music industry when it refused to address online.
When we meet last week, deep in the bowels of London’s Adam Street club, he repeated that view: “TV has always been an ad-funded medium so we’re looking at helping that exist online. TIOTI will be a lab to test that theory and test out new ideas.”
And it looks like he’s is going to get every opportunity to do so. Since being written up in the mainstream press recently, TIOTI has seen a wave of sign-ups to its beta phase. So many in fact, that Paul woke up to find over 1,000 emails in his in-box after Telewest went down for a day at his house.
It seems TIOTI’s aim to be the first TV-based “social media aggregator” may prove more popular than that convoluted name suggests. Already it seems to be tapping into a pent-up desire among users to share and discover TV shows, employing several Web 2.0 techniques like tagging and user ratings.
The back-story to all this will touch a familiar chord with anyone who has watched TV and realised how the global release schedule of shows is anathema to the new Internet economy. The 33 year-old Cleghorn was inspired to start work on TIOTI when he became frustrated that the US drama The West Wing took so long to be aired in the UK. He rightly surmised that instead of going though the legal hassle of hosting the actual video, a good way to start would be to simply pull feeds from BitTorrent search engines, Apple’s iTunes Store and the burgeoning range of downloadable TV sources.
He designed the site a year ago when BitTorrent was the main source of online TV. However, as he says, “This year has been a complete turnaround and the TV networks and rights owners are now realising the long tail of TV can be something you can make money out of. TV is such a wasteful industry and they are realising the costs of entry in terms of offering content online are now so low that they can easily release the shows. Which validates Chris Anderson’s Long tail theory right there.”
TIOTI started as a development blog, which talked about information architecture in terms of tagging versus monolithic directories. After a while the site was turned into a holding page with a sign-up email field and the company was founded in 2005.
But real work began in March this year with a team of developers in the Ukraine (“The best mix of European sensibilities and the price is better” says Cleghorn). Everything to date has been done on a “sweat equity” basis. In the all-important realm of funding, TIOTI is currently negotiating with more than one unnamed potential investor with a view to securing funding for marketing and the next stage of development.
Cleghorn has co-founded the company – which is a US entity – with a Seattle-based colleague, Marc Colando, whom he met in London during the heady days of the Razorfish web agency.
Cleghorn only quit his day job at Aggregator.tv last month to concentrate on TIOTI. Prior to TIOTI, he ran the design agency Neuromantics, and before this held senior design positions at Poke, Razorfish, BT Research Labs and Xerox.
But he has “form” in the area of aggregation. With over 10 years experience in visual design, information architecture and design strategy Cleghorn has worked on projects related to the aggregation field with Aggregator.tv, Nokia, the BBC, Orange and Vodafone. (Aggregator.tv is a high quality video-on-demand service that is soon to launch a new Russian TV service online called Moe.tv)
Colando formerly ran Interactive Planet Inc that developed sites and intranets for clients including Bank of America, The Coca-Cola Company, Earthlink, Equifax, Kodak, The US Marine Corps and Vodafone.
As far as the source it tracks, the three main commercial areas TIOTI searches are iTunes, AOL video and Amazon’s Unbox service. Despite the fact that Amazon and Unbox don’t produce workable RSS feeds, TIOTI has written software – ‘smarter screen scrapes‘ independent of the page’s design – to pull into the information it needs.
At the heart of TIOTI is its svelte black interface – it’s notable that Cleghorn is much more designer than coder – and a social experience, which has an iPod-like ease of use. (Ironically, Cleghorn’s nick-name is ‘Paul Pod’ – although this pre-dates the ubiquitous MP3 player).
The TIOTI backend is built on the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) Spring framework, and uses open source products like Apache Tomcat and MySQL. The tools available include TV guides and episode data, which enable users to write and edit reviews and pull RSS feeds out of their preferences to keep track of the shows they want.
“The advantage of a niche social site is that people are passionate about it, they want to get involved in adding more to it. Right now we have a little meta data but testers have told us they want us to add more to the shows, such as links about the show to Wikipedia, official TV Guides, pulling collaborative content from places like Fickr etc. or linked to fan fiction sites,” says Cleghorn.
The main user home page displays recommendations, with the right hand area destined to become prime real estate for rich media advertising. “Video adverts here should make more contextual sense than being on a flat newspaper page” says Cleghorn, revealing that their baseline revenue targets involve the juicy rich media ads currently commanding rates as high as £35/cpm.
TIOTI will also make recommendations to users based on what they rate. Each show and episode can be recommended to other users, rated, discussed with others, and – a little like surfing ‘friends of friends’ networks in social network sites – it’s possible to see what shows other users rate.
The TIOTI front-end uses AJAX to make the user experience slicker. All of the show and episode data is editable via a WiKi-style editing engine and the systems spits out a large variety of RSS feeds. User discussion boards and on-site user-to-user messaging are also active features.
There are also some interesting ways to pull content out of the site. For instance, a user could use the Open Source Democracy Player, which has an RSS reader, a BitTorrent client and VLC player. One could then paste feed from TIOTI into Democracy Player as a new channel and watch it download shows automatically, even an entire season. Cleghorn lets slip that they are even talking to Apple about integrating the site with iTunes.
Currently being beta tested by over 2,000 beta users, with 12,000 lined-up to invite in, TIOTI also links to new DVD releases from retailers like Amazon. It is indexing over 1,600 TV shows and almost 90,000 episodes right now. However, Cleghorn indicated that there was “no reason” why it could not also point to the DVD rental firms such as Blockbuster, LoveFilm and ScreenSelect.
Indeed, he sees no reason why TIOTI could actually one day play the shows themselves via the site. “A good example is the BBC whose mission is to deliver shows to as many people in the right way, such as on geography, so it shouldn’t be a big deal,” says Cleghorn.
He thinks TIOTI is a step up from simple time-shifting TV via a recorder, and also goes beyond video-on-demand. Since by aggregating feeds from a variety of TV guides and download sources it effectively does the “remote flipping” for the user: “Like TiVo for the internet if you like,” he says.
Co-founder Colando believes that because the market for TV is becoming more segmented as content owners try to coral their TV shows into their own sites, TIOTI has a good opportunity to aggregate all the schedules, release dates and download sources under one brand.
“Do I need to know viacom makes a particular show?” explains Cleghorn. “Add in the additional retailers like Amazon Unbox, iTunes, AOL, upcoming outlets like Google Video/YouTube, Brightcove… each with technological and geographical restrictions and you start to get a pretty sliced up marketplace.”
It would appear he has a point. A look at potential competitors reveals that other sites may do some of what TIOTI does, but not all of it. YouTube, while aggregating user generated content, is fast becoming a desert for professionally produced TV shows as legal action pulls a lot of content away. And TV shows on the Apple store remain languishing in the low numbers while the studios work out what to do next.
Says Cleghorn: “Lots of people are doing parts of what we are doing but so far no-one has joined all the dots we have”. Cheekily he adds: “In the big picture the Radio Times [the leading UK-based TV guide] should be doing this but they are not, so we’ll do it for them and sell them a white label license!”
More seriously he adds: “We think we can do the social space better and offer better tools for user generated content about and around TV shows too.” He does however admit that they are “keeping an eye on the Venice project“, the P2P TV project floated by the former founders of Skype.
Possibly the most contentious aspect of what TIOTI does is alert users to new shows they can download from BitTorrent or other file-sharing systems. Cleghorn’s answer to this is that they “don’t see BitTorrent being in there a great deal longer. We are being as careful as possible. We are based in the US and signed up the DMC safe harbour agreement and we don’t host any of the BitTorrent streams, just point to them. We are two steps removed from the torrent.”
Cleghorn is confident that the ‘napsterisation’ of TV won’t actually come to pass: “What happened to music won’t happen to TV as the music industry was slow and in denial, and characterised us all as thieves from day one. TV is moving faster and being more open minded. TV has always been ad-supported too, so they are less worried where the shows appear so long as they are paid somehow.”
He believes, given that about 80 percent of what people want is just 20 percent of the content, the big TV networks will make sure that the legal aspects of pointing to illegal BitTorrent sites will be sorted out quickly. However, this may sound like wishful thinking and there is still plenty of money to be made by lawyers, as the newly acquired YouTube has found.
But, much like another dotcom founder with long hair associated with video, YouTube’s Chad Hurley, the normally reserved Cleghorn is quite clear about the goal for TIOTI.
With a ‘half-joking’ smile and a hint of that Blackpool-born accent, he says: “We’re trying to take over the world here.”