Discoverability: Toward a Common frame of Reference

The report titled Discoverability: Toward a Common frame of Reference, is released today. Danielle Desjardins, who was in charge of this research, presents it in general terms here.

The Discoverability Summit, organized jointly by the CRTC and the NFB, will be held on May 10 and 11 in Toronto.

The Summit was preceded by En route events in Vancouver and Montréal last December, during which academic experts as well as representatives of various industry sectors and cultural institutions exchanged on the concept of discoverability.

The concept of discoverability was amply covered, but these discussions also exposed the vagueness that still surrounds it, and the need to frame a definition that covers its multifaceted connotations. The Canada Media Fund, the National Film Board, Telefilm Canada and CBC/Radio-Canada, four Canadian cultural institutions that are particularly concerned with the viability of Canada’s audiovisual industry as well as with the development and promotion of Canadian productions, wanted to contribute to this national discussion by sponsoring research on the development of a discoverability framework.

The result, titled Discoverability: Toward a Common frame of Reference, is released today. Danielle Desjardins, who was in charge of this research, presents it in general terms here.

Initially, discoverability is a term used in the English legal field as well as in IT (both in English and French). It describes how easy it is to discover a component—whether it be an application or content.

And how do we discover content? Many studies show that most people discover content mainly through articles and critics, whether in traditional or electronic media. For instance, a survey conducted for the Hot Docs Festival according to which 80% of respondents indicated having discovered documentaries in this manner.

However, this other statistic, also part of the 2014 study titledLearning from Documentary Audiences: A Market Research Study reveals the following:

Based on this statistical information, the authors conclude that "if more tools for discovery and promotion were available, respondents [to this study] would increase their viewing of documentaries.”

Indeed, a quick overview of existing literature on how consumers choose the content they view allowed us to observe that good old word of mouth and critics published in traditional media remain the discovery tools that are most often mentioned by the public.

But what contents are discovered this way, if not those that are discussed next to the coffee machine, that are covered by mainstream media and that therefore benefit from a great deal of visibility – Hollywood blockbusters, American TV series, musical hits or best-selling video games?

The discoverability of content and in particular of Canadian content depends first and foremost on the opportunity to discover it through this abundance of hits and new content of all sorts: the number of originally scripted shows produced by the American industry doubled in less than a decade. In addition to this new windfall of content circulating both on traditional systems and on the internet, there has been the multiplication of platforms that disseminate video content, from the ultra-popular YouTube to more obscure sources that cater to highly specialized niches.

Discoverability framework

Discoverability weaves its way between audience and content in a set of complex interactions consisting of marketing initiatives and strategies, but also public policies, commercial dealings, rapidly mutating business models, innovative technologies, and consumers with their ever-changing habits. The term can sometimes be confusing undoubtedly because it speaks to several levels of intervention and involves two groups of players that pursue different objectives.

We therefore wanted to bring these levels together within a relatively simple structure focussed on content, the core of discoverability initiatives. The structure is divided in two: on the one hand, the levers, i.e., the measures, initiatives, strategies and tools that contribute to the development of discoverability; on the other hand, the actors, i.e., the stakeholders that are directly concerned.

There are two main categories of levers: institutional and industrial.

Institutional levers are implemented by governments. They are the cultural policies that are adopted to support and protect audiovisual production activities, the regulations established to support these policies as well as the different programs administered by government agencies that finance and support audiovisual productions.

When the broadcasting system used to operate in analogue mode, broadcasters controlled the content offer whereas the body that regulated their activities, the CRTC, intervened to make sure that their offer met policy goals through, among other things, exhibition quotas for Canadian content during prime time hours. Today, the CRTC, as is the case with other regulatory bodies throughout the world, estimates that such measures are less and less effective and has therefore decided to refocus this quantity-oriented approach on an approach that favours production quality.

For their part, the government agencies that financially support content production and distribution are focussing on adapting their interventions to the new environment by proposing programs aimed at increasing the visibility of content both nationally and internationally.

Industrial levers are initiatives that are implemented by the industry. To a great extent, they are based on new digital technologies: they operate material referred to as data, using tools called algorithms that can be used for multiple purposes (research, customized recommendations and new forms of marketing among others).

Data are pieces of information on users’ content, activities or identity that are recorded by digital devices. In the digital economy, they represent an extremely strategic asset when used by actors who know exactly how to process them using algorithms, i.e., versatile tools that are series of computerized instructions to implement discoverability means.

Algorithms analyze and process data to retrieve certain content items from them, often in a personalized manner based on users’ tastes and habits. A host of means serve this purpose: search engines that go through online aggregators’ catalogues, recommendation engines that direct content to consumers, applications that sort and organize the right content for consumers, and marketing initiatives—from the most conventional to the most technologically advanced—based on analyses of user and use data.

Multiple issues

This new environment raises a number of issues for both institutions and the industry. For institutions, the question at hand is to implement measures that will continue to ensure the availability of quality national programming in a world where content discoverability ultimately depends on a content’s ability to attract and retain the attention of a public on which tremendous demands are placed.

As for the industry, the new technological means that need to be implemented to grasp the public’s attention (an issue of the utmost importance in today’s economy) also come with a certain number of challenges. Algorithms’ capacities to erect filter bubbles around users and serve their creators’ interests as well as the limits of search and recommendation engines when it comes to push less popular content, for example, represent obstacles to enhancing discoverability.

The dominant platforms that have mastered the art of integrating content at the core of a smooth and easy user experience have made it practically mandatory to ensure content passes through their respective environments. National cultural industries are thus forced to comply with these business rules designed for a global market where the impact on cultural diversity becomes increasingly real.

To these challenges we must add those stemming from having personal data handled by third parties required to ensure their security and confidentiality at a time when consumers are weary of certain practices and in an environment where security breaches have become increasingly commonplace.

In a world that is still dominated by linear television and blockbuster hits, relying on the opinion of a respected friend or critic to have an idea of which content is worth viewing still makes sense of course. But imagining that discoverability is limited to that would reflect a poor understanding of the concept.

For my friend or the critic who writes for the daily paper to which I’m subscribed to know about this great show that he is recommending, he first had to discover it himself either through the major networks’ formidable marketing machines or because it emerged through one of the institutional or technological levers that we describe in the report.

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