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Volume 21 No. 31
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Apps for Apple TV, DirecTV offer a glimpse of video’s future

The apps can learn a user’s behavior and gradually personalize the content.
Photo by: ESPN
ESPN’s future may not involve ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNews.

It may not even involve ESPN.

The future of video — at least from ESPN’s standpoint — is being developed from a windowless Innovation Laboratory on ESPN’s Bristol campus. That’s where two of the network’s top technology executives showed off apps they have developed for Apple TV and DirecTV that strive to blur the distinction between the content that comes from linear television or the internet.

“The concept of channels is somewhat antiquated,” said Aaron LaBerge, ESPN executive vice president and chief technology officer. “What you care about is what you can watch now. We want to make sure that the options you are presented with are the things you care about.”

SBJ media writer John Ourand speaks with Executive Editor Abe Madkour and senior writer Bill King about his reporting of the ESPN story.

The blurry distinction is most noticeable on the Apple TV app, where ESPN’s live events are highlighted at the top of the screen and ESPN’s linear channels are shoved at the bottom.

“The experience is entirely organized around the content,” said Mike Andrews, ESPN’s vice president of media engineering. “You have to go to the bottom to navigate by network, and that’s intentional. It’s about the content.”

Situated on the ground floor of a campus building, the Innovation Lab is the clearest sign that ESPN is preparing for the future of video in a non-linear world. Featuring up to 15 big screens, the room is filled with a seemingly endless supply of gear, from 4K to 8K and the most up-to-date, over-the-top services. During a visit in June, streaming platforms from Apple TV, Roku, PlayStation, Xbox, Chromecast and Fire TV were on display, showing the future of video, at least from ESPN’s perspective.

ESPN already has launched an app on DirecTV. Viewers who turn to any ESPN network via a GE set-top box will see a pop-up box emerge in the lower right-hand corner of the TV screen. Viewers who click on the box are taken into ESPN’s app, which provides a menu of programming including live games, short-form highlights, news videos and video-on-demand programming from ESPN’s linear networks and ESPN3.

One of the most unique features of these apps is the personalization ESPN is developing. ESPN is monitoring “click-stream usage,” allowing it to build a profile of the types of videos users click on both within the app and on Someone who regularly clicks on Baltimore Orioles news and highlights, for example, will have news and video of Baltimore pushed to the top of their personal app screen.

“Maybe you didn’t say you’re a tennis fan but you’re looking at tennis five or six times a week, we’ll start feeding you tennis content as well,” Andrews said. “That persona travels with you across all of our platforms.”