Comcast Snaps Up Watchwith So It Can Tell You What’s Happening Inside Your Show

Image courtesy of Comcast

It doesn’t seem like much of a story, at first: a giant tech conglomerate has quietly acquired a smaller, newer company that does things kind of like what the big company already does. It’s basically the story of the entire 21st century world of tech in a nutshell. But with every new set of players comes a new set of concerns.

This time, the big conglomerate is Comcast, and the small startup is Watchwith. Watchwith is a San Francisco-based startup that processes video metadata — basically, everything about the video you’re watching.

So for example, the fact that “John” and “Jane” are trading barbs on your screen en route to a comic hookup is data. Metadata, then, includes information like what actors are in the scene; where the scene is taking place (“New York street” vs “Cambodian jungle,” for example); or in fact, when scenes begin, end, or change at all.

Something like Amazon Prime’s X-Ray feature, where you can access live pop-ups relating to actors as they stream by, uses metadata in order to work. And so do platforms’ search functions: if you search for content featuring, say, Kate McKinnon, the software you’re using has to have all the correct metadata it holds on the the data it has access to to bring you a link to the 2016 Ghostbusters and not the 1984 edition.

Watchwith partners with content companies — yes, including the NBCUniversal suite of networks — in order to get that data identified, sorted, and tagged. So if it’s tagging Disney animated content, for example, it can identify characters, tell them apart, and match them with voice actors, or tell The Expanse apart from The Magicians for SyFy viewers. Producers and editors can manually tag their content using Watchwith, but there’s also auto-tagging, machine-learning tech involved to bolster human efforts too.

Neither Comcast nor Watchwith disclosed how much the the deal was for, but all 15 of Watchwith’s California employees either have been or will be folded into Comcast’s “CoMPASS” (Comcast Metadata Products and Search Services) team, with CEO and founder Zane Vella taking on a VP role.

Improving search, and making it work in a cross-application way, is a core part of Comcast’s current X1 strategy — and the X1, to a large extent, is Comcast’s current strategy. The company licenses out the platform to other cable companies in both the U.S. and Canada, extending its reach (and revenue stream). It also now allows both Dish’s Sling TV and Netflix to operate on the X1 and charge for services as Comcast cable line-items. Expand the X1’s capabilities, and you expand — or at least maintain — Comcast’s reach.

From Cocmast’s point of view, these goals make perfect sense — of course Kabletown wants to improve its search and response functions. As content moves away from the broadcast and cable realms and into the online, app-based sphere, the tech giant is beginning to have to compete with others over some products and services. And when the other players include Amazon and Google, stepping up your voice and search game is a natural move.

But there’s a side effect: the more data Comcast collects about you, well, the more data it has.

Watchwith doesn’t necessarily grab everything, but as tools keep being developed and added to the X1 suite, the amount of data they can aggregate about you as a viewer keeps growing. In addition to knowing about who is in a scene you’re watching, your provider may also know that this scene was recorded in 2014; originally this show aired between September and December 2015 on Network Y; you are watching this program through on-demand; you watched four previous episodes of this program in the last week; the current time is 9:23 p.m.; you are watching on a mobile device; and more.

Or even if your cable box doesn’t collect that data, someone — perhaps an app developer for your phone — does, and can barter, sell, or trade it off to anyone with a passing interest.

[via Multichannel News]