As the universe of available television content has exploded outward, a cottage industry of content navigation has followed closely behind. No longer printed volumes that collect beer-bottle rings on the coffee table, today’s TV guides are powerful digital discovery engines in their own right, which scan not just the vast programming cosmos, but viewer behavior itself, moving ever-faster toward meaningful recommendations that make finding something to watch a little less daunting.
The allure of this noble quest was powerful enough for one entrepreneur to leave behind a thriving video streaming company in his homeland, and head for the sunny shores of San Francisco and content discovery. After finding great success as CEO of Okko, a smart TV-focused on-demand service that outpaced iTunes’ VOD sales in Russia, Leonid Belyaev has cofounded Zeen, a personal home entertainment guide now available in the App Store.
“There are lots of problems to be solved in the TV space. The models are changing rapidly, the cable packages are about to break,” Belyaev told Daily Brief. “We started Zeen as a first step toward our bigger idea of the future of TV, which is personalized, which learns about your taste, which adapts to your changing habits, and to the amount of time you have to spend to view content.”
With new versions coming out frequently from Belyaev’s development team, Zeen is still very much an evolving product, but its potential is clear. Where Netflix and other streaming services can offer in-app recommendation tools based on user activity, Zeen can offer recommendations based on user activity across all of the services, then connect the user to what looks cool. It doesn’t take the form of what we’ve come to expect from a TV guide at all; rather than primarily functioning as a where and/or when of available shows, it places available information about those shows front and center, via a homepage feed of promos, trailers and news from the entertainment world.
Tapping an item on the feed reveals its contents, as well as a “Mentions” section with a link to a page for whatever show it’s about. Once on a show’s page, the user’s first option is to “follow” the program, which tells their feed to update with stories about it and other shows like it, using an algorithm to tailor the individual’s reading experience. If a show is on iTunes, a direct link is available from its Zeen page to watch it there. If it’s available on broadcast, the user can set a reminder for when it airs. Each page also offers additional related news about the given show, as well as further insight into key cast members and other contributors, culled from online resources such as Wikipedia. As the name Zeen suggests, it all adds up to a kind of dynamic “magazine that follows your taste,” Belyaev said. Or, for those whom the concept of magazine is rapidly fading, “a living web of links that allows your personalized journey,” he continued. “We don’t just give you a name of something. We’d like to be your gateway to this content, so you just find anything in Zeen, click it through, and go straight to watching it.”
To maintain quality control, Zeen does curate the news content from which it aggregates stories. In the future, Belyaev hopes to make users part of that process, allowing them to create their own magazine-style “stories” with hand-picked news and information links organized around shows, stars or even subjects that intrigue them. Under this model, the TV guide becomes a galaxy of niche TV guides, each offering shows, films, trailers, current events and other treats around topics ranging from Brad Pitt to kite surfing, to Stranger Things, and beyond.
“We truly believe in human curation,” Belyaev said. “We believe that’s a very powerful mechanism of discovery. People tend to trust other people with their opinion.”
Zeen currently gets a kickback from iTunes for each purchase directed there from the app, and will continue to grow this revenue stream as more partners sign on. It also might serve as a marketing outlet for TV providers, who would have the option of slipping native advertising amidst the news feed a la Twitter or Facebook. A successful TV guide in this day and age must serve as a literal bridge between content and consumer, and Belyaev hopes to extend that bridge a good deal further.
“The idea is to be a global platform,” he said. “To connect people in various countries and allow them to explore content at a global scale.”