Don't Count on Apple to Slice Through TV's Gordian Knot
When I look at the state of television, I see a nightmare buffet. There are plenty of choices, but accessing each is tied up with restrictions, limitations, complications. Taken together, it's such a mess of consumer pain and wasted effort that I believe the whole TV industry is in serious danger of ruining its audience. And it's something Apple TV may not be capable of fixing.
I've been an Apple product enthusiast and watcher for years, and if there's one product that I lusted after two years ago, it was a real Apple TV -- a cool HDTV with a big screen and a kickass Apple navigation system with live content and content on demand. Since then my ardor has cooled considerably, and it's not because Apple executives apparently briefed an analyst and basically told him, "not so fast." That's just the icing on a collapsed cake.
So why am I not all hot and bothered by an Apple HDTV anymore? Because I'm starting to believe that Apple is not up to the job at hand. Blasphemy for an Apple fan, right? I know. It's painful to write. So I'll start at the beginning.
First, even if Apple rethinks and recreates a wonderful new HDTV design, it won't matter so much because you can't touch it. The absolutely best and most successful Apple products of all time are the ones that either get held, get carried or invite you to touch it in close proximity. The iPhones feel great in the hand. iPads feel solid. The MacBook Air reminds you how great it is every time you open it.
The only people who regularly touch TVs are small children with grubby fingers who smack the screen to show Dora the Explorer where Swiper the Fox is sneaking around. Consequently, a major element of Apple's success is essentially rendered irrelevant. If your Apple TV is attached to your wall, the build quality is less important. Samsung might be a smartphone copycat, but you must admit, the company knows how to produce a decent-looking and quite serviceable TV at a competitive price.
Why is the physical form factor important? It means that shelling out for a big Apple HDTV unit is just a little bit harder because the form is less critical to the usage, and it's one less thing that can tip an everyday consumer into an irrational buying decision. And it also means that the weight of the buying decision will lean toward the navigation method, the user interface, and the services that it will deliver.
TV Is All About the Content
What's the point of having a TV? Consuming video content. For that, you need television shows and movies. Apps and the Internet and email and such? Nice, but you really need core content, and that's TV and movies. The problem is that Apple doesn't offer live TV like you can get from cable, satellite and services like FiOS -- or even broadcast over the air. You can buy some TV shows after the fact, but watch them all? Hardly. For sports, news, special events or even in-the-moment shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice," you just need a live TV service.
Can Apple come up with a way to make finding, watching and recording any cable, satellite, Internet, or over-the-air TV broadcast service easy, cool and fun? Yes. But will Apple be able to do it on a 50-inch scale at a competitive price? Doubtful. The only way is with a set-top box -- a la a more power Apple TV puck.
So heading into this fall, I've already resigned myself to the fact that my rational brain won't likely be able to shell out enough cash for a real Apple HDTV that would be compelling to justify the cost. We are, of course, still trudging through one of the most challenging economic environments that has ever occurred in my lifetime.
Then I saw this Reuters report that says Apple is courting EPIX for an upcoming television. EPIX is a group video effort created by Lions Gate Entertainment, MGM, and Viacom's Paramount Pictures. Sounds cool, right? If I could get all my movies from one place for a decent price with a great interface, across multiple mobile devices, OK, I'm interested. Then I found EPIX's Frequently Asked Questions page. First, it's not immediately clear if you can even get movies via EPIX at the same time DVDs are released. Still, how much does it cost?
It's this question that made me realize that current television delivery is so messed up that not even Apple can fix it any time soon. Let me explain. Here's the EPIX FAQ answer to how much it costs: "EPIX is available from different television providers at different prices. We're bundled with some partners in some great packages or available 'ala carte.' Call your television provider and ask for EPIX today ..."
Really? The consumer pricing of the service is so difficult to explain that you can't even offer up a basic pay range? Examples? The year 2012 is half-way over! The method of delivery is so ingrained that it must be bundled with the very television services that are already mediocre or outright broken. And Apple wants to create an app (I'm assuming) to let us subscribe to EPIX in some unknown way?
Belly Up to the Nightmare Buffet
And this is just EPIX.
We've also got Netflix available on the Apple TV as well as on iOS, and we've got Amazon Instant Video available on the iPad ... but not on Apple TV. We've got ABC, CBS and NBC iPad apps, but not on Apple TV. There's Hulu, but that is yet again another service consumers have to subscribe to and figure out ... and ultimately find that it won't even come close to fulfilling all their TV and video needs.
Now, there are many guys smarter about the challenges of the TV and movie video licensing and business cases than I am. I'm just a consumer who pays attention. And what I'm seeing is a nightmare buffet. Your choice is to pay a lot of money (cable and satellite service) to get almost every show and the ability to record it via a DVR. But to get desert (Hollywood movies), you've got to wait for them to be released in some way and pay extra for them. So you go to the buffet, get a great, if expensive meal, then pay extra for desert.
With Internet and mobile, we have many new buffet lines, but instead of any sort of organization that makes sense -- say, meat here, main dishes here, vegetables here, dessert here ... we have a branded maze. ABC chicken here (Castle), CBS pork here (NCIS), and NBC beef here (The Office). But all the interfaces are different, and each line has arbitrary rules and closes unexpectedly, as in, "Sorry, that episode is no longer available for streaming." Then there are some services that offer bundles of similar sorts of things, like fast food.
Obviously, though, none of these are good enough on their own, and taken together, they are such a mess of consumer pain and wasted effort that I believe the whole TV industry is in serious danger of ruining its audience. It's destroying potential watching habits. Instead of creating great habits with cues and rewards, the television and video industry is essentially offering up a lot of disappointment.
Can Apple Clean Up the Mess?
I don't think so. I tend to believe that all of these players are just dying to have their own brands succeed only through the channels that they can control, but the problem is they are driving away viewers. By futzing around, TV is becoming less and less a shared experience and more and more just a random diversion.
There are a couple of things that I see. First, some people are happy paying a boatload for HD channels via their traditional cable providers and don't care at all about what they watch. I saw a guy watch back-to-back-to-back episodes of "Storage Wars" from his chair during a birthday party for his nieces and nephews, and it got me thinking: a) I didn't know "Storage Wars" even existed -- apparently it's a show about professionals who scour through repossessed storage units; and b) Holy crap, it doesn't matter what Apple can come up with because nothing is easier than shelling out a high monthly bill to get a gazillion channels of garbage. How can Apple create something better than "Storage Wars" if a good portion of our population is willing to waste their lives watching whatever happens to be on a channel in bright and vivid HD?
I'm sorry, I just don't see how this content is good for anyone. People who watch "Storage Wars" ... just don't seem like good consumers of anything, and how can you sell content (advertise) to people who will sit on their couch for three hours watching really repetitive reality content drummed up with fancy editing to make it seem oh-so important?
OK, so I'm seeing a lazy portion of our population set the bar for content really low and yet seem to pay for it via high monthly subscriptions. But I don't think these buyers are the active demographics that advertisers are looking for. So they're not really supporting the industry that well.
What about youngsters? All the teenagers I see these days don't seem to be watching much traditional TV at all. They're watching YouTube video clips, streaming things willy nilly as media omnivores, and they seem to be generally disengaged with traditional television. It's all computer, phone and Xbox, all the time. If the television industry can't connect all these things to get kids engaged as watchers, I don't know that it's really going to matter much. The TV industry will futz itself into irrelevancy within another generation.
At my house, we watch things via the Apple TV, Xbox 360, various apps on iPhones and iPads and iPods, and some via Macs and some satellite TV ... and it all sucks. It all has drawbacks. Every method is a constant process of pros and cons. Consequently, I'm watching less and less TV these days. My DVR shows are limited to my living room and bedroom TVs, so that's not very mobile/. And the mobile stuff on iOS via streaming is limited -- I have to use multiple apps to get TV shows, and even then there is a lot of restrictions. Apple TV movie rentals require planning ahead to download on my home DSL, then they aren't very portable and are gone way too fast, forcing me to rent them again when I start a movie but am unable to finish it within my allotted time. Netflix is limited, Amazon is limited, Crackle is limited, Hulu is limited, EPIX can't even tell you how much it costs.
A World of Chaos
So ... can a new Apple TV save us from TV entropy?
I doubt it. Our audiences are getting fractured, the demands are fractured, and all players are fighting for the crumbs of the pie. I'm starting to think that any new Apple TV announcements -- a big one or a little one -- are going to be one huge disappointment.
But hey, I've been hoping that maybe I'm wrong -- until I read the aforementioned article about an Apple briefing with Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves, who reportedly sent a note to his investors basically saying that an Apple television appears to be extremely unlikely in the short-term. According to the CNNMoney report, Hargreaves noted that Apple will enter markets where it feels it can create great customers experiences and fix problems.
"The key problems in the television market are the poor quality of the user interface and the forced bundling of pay TV content, in our view," Hargreaves reportedly wrote, adding, "While Apple could almost certainly create a better user interface, Mr. Cue's commentary suggested that this would be an incomplete solution from Apple's perspective unless it could deliver content in a way that is different from the current multichannel pay TV model."
Plus, Hargreaves also noted that "acquiring rights for traditional broadcast and cable network content outside of the current bundled model is virtually impossible."
So I'm not the only guy who sees a knot of television services strangling the possibility of a near-term Apple HDTV.