Going Deep With Metadata

Comcast’s Watchwith acquisition amplifies importance in TV’s new world

Comcast will look to take video metadata to the next level — and decipher what’s happening inside TV shows and movies on a scene-by-scene basis — after snapping up Watchwith, a 10-year-old company that has found a solid niche with pay TV providers and programmers.

Financial terms of the deal, which closed in December, were not disclosed, but Comcast plans to use Watchwith’s platform to drive new, more personalized experiences into its cloud-powered X1 video platform.

Watchwith’s deep metadata platform is crafted to sift information occurring within the video, down to its individual frames. That data can include which actors appear on screen, the location of a given scene or the start of a memorable scene within a movie or TV show. Watchwith does that through the blending of two tools — an editorial tool that enables producers to manually tag specific video segments and an automated media analysis/tagging tool that relies on algorithms and machine learning techniques.

“When that process is complete, you have all of this information that, at a frame level, [tells] you what’s happening inside the video,” Rick Rioboli, senior vice president of CoMPASS (Comcast Metadata Products and Search Services), said.

San Francisco-based Watchwith and its 15 employees, including CEO Zane Vella, have joined CoMPASS, a unit at Comcast that has been quietly operating cloud-based metadata, search, personalization and recommendations services and platforms for all of the company’s video apps, including those for X1 and the X1 voice remote that was introduced in May 2015.

Comcast has been building that team for about five years as it strived to unify several related projects spanning areas focused on native set-top platforms, X1, mobile apps and the Web, Rioboli said.

CoMPASS has traditionally been focused on program-level discovery, Rioboli said. It sees Watchwith and its metadata capabilities as an opportunity to drill deeper into those individual movies and TV shows, creatng new experiences and features for X1, he explained.

“We think there’s power in being able to understand what’s happening inside the video, at a frame level or a scene level,” Rioboli said.

The Watchwith acquisition makes Comcast a more active player in the world of metadata, a market that has typically been the domain of companies such as Gracenote (soon to become part of Nielsen), and TiVo, which merged with Rovi last fall.

Comcast has already been using Watchwith to power two features for X1 — an “Auto-Extend” component that automatically extends DVR recordings of sporting events if games go beyond their regularly scheduled airtimes; and a sports-highlights element that automatically creates metadata tags that enables viewers to jump directly to key plays and moments in a sporting event recorded on the DVR. Comcast has initially implemented the highlights feature for National Football League and soccer games.

Rioboli said the new acquisition would help the company accelerate the development of other enhanced features that extend well beyond sports, and into areas such as news, TV series and movies.

“We think the magic of the potential of deep metadata is to be able to take people directly into the part of the content that they are looking for,” Rioboli said. “We think it’s a very strategic space.”

The Comcast acquisition serves as solid exit for Watchwith, a company founded in 2006 that was known as Related Content Database Inc. (RCDb) before undergoing a name change in 2012.

Vella, who has joined Comcast as vice president of product at the ComPASS unit, said he’ll start off by focusing on creating a tighter integration of the Watchwith tools and technologies with X1.

Comcast and its product team “have shown an understanding and a commitment to the importance of metadata in not just driving guides, but in driving the future of the television experience,” Vella added. “People underestimate the power of metadata.”

Watchwith has also been using its metadata to fuel advanced forms of advertising.

Last year, the company launched an in-program, native ad platform for IP-capable set-tops, smart TVs and mobile devices. NBCUniversal’s Bravo was among the programmers that have tried it out.

Fox and Viacom are among Watchwith’s other known programming partners.