It won’t be long before the default way to consume content for many will be through voice control and artificial intelligence: “Alexa, show me an action movie”, “Alexa, what are the news headlines?”, “Alexa, put on some relaxing music.”

This will be a huge improvement in user experience compared with today’s app-centric model where consumers must first choose a content provider, then open their app, and then search for content. Like playing hide and seek – is Eddie the Eagle on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Now TV or BBC iPlayer? It’s the modern equivalent of 1980s Britain, where TV viewers had to buy two different listings magazines to see all the channels’ schedules.

This creates a huge, and urgent, opportunity for content creators and platforms. And it delivers a major new threat to the media business with another seismic shift in the ownership of the relationship with consumers. It means Amazon and Google tightening their grip on the end-to-end content chain. Yet the response of the established industry has been disappointingly lukewarm.

Alexa, born in Amazon’s Echo, is increasingly being embedded in other devices.

Voice is an Entirely New Medium

Virtual assistants, linking voice control with an underlying brain of AI, are a completely new interface paradigm. As significant as the shift from dumb-terminal VDUs to mouse-driven graphical user interfaces, as important to the media industry as the rise of mobile and OTT.

It would be a dangerous mistake to treat virtual assistants as “just another user interface”. Voice and AI fundamentally change the way content is selected and delivered. It is an entirely new medium. It should be treated with the importance of internet in the 1990s and smartphones in the 2000s.

The biggest immediate impact will be on linear TV grazing. Today’s standard option for audiences looking for “something to watch” is to flick through linear channels or an EPG. Virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant will replace that – we’ll ask them for something to watch, and they’ll know exactly what we want to see – based on their data and AI understanding.

Alexa Everywhere

The consumer electronics industry drives media consumers’ habits and expectations. And the clear message from this month’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was “Alexa Everywhere”.

Alexa and her virtual assistant rivals are escaping the confines of smart speakers. Device makers have embedded them in cars, headphones, wearables, robots, smart-home devices and even the legendary internet fridge with varying degrees of success.

The important thing: many of these devices are used to consume content. As virtual assistants become ubiquitous they will be the primary route to choosing and selecting that content. The more devices a user has with AI, the better the data and learning, and the more important it will be to hook into that ecosystem to ensure content reaches that user.

In just the same way that social media platforms have become a huge filter for news content, AI-enabled devices will become an even finer filter for audio-visual content. Media companies who are not part of these ecosystems will no longer be able to reach consumers.

It’s not just Alexa that’s everywhere – Google Assistant lives inside Google Home devices

How are Media Companies Responding?

Like the gadget makers at CES, media companies should be all over Alexa like a rash – gaining first-mover advantage, launching integrations (“Skills” in Alexa parlance), learning what works and what doesn’t. Build fast, fail fast, move on to the next idea.

But they are at risk of doing too little, too late – ceding control of this new medium to innovative new entrants.  The sum total of Alexa ‘TV & Film’ Skills currently available in the UK from “real” media companies is… one. And that is from Amazon itself, driving traffic to The Grand Tour.

A disappointing lack of Alexa Movie and TV Skills

There’s more activity in the ‘News’ section with leading providers like the BBC, Guardian, Sky and RTÉ providing news headlines services for Alexa’s Flash Briefing. But no sign yet of any innovative services that rethink how consumers interact with content and offer something new.

A notable initiative, announced at CES, comes from Indian satellite DTH operator DISH, which became the first TV platform to offer direct integration with Alexa. DISH users will be able to control the Hopper DVR through voice – including requesting particular content genres and actors.

If you know of any other great Alexa/virtual assistant integrations from content platforms that I’ve missed, let me know and I’ll add them here.

Alexa, What Time Will I Be Missing the Boat?

Yes, virtual assistants and voice control are still niche. Yes, the number of users is still low. The lack of urgency is not unlike the approach media companies had to the internet circa 1995. But how many of them would love the chance to roll back the clock 20 years and grab a much bigger stake of the online land rush? That is the opportunity that is here today in voice and AI.