The Maddeningly Painful, Pathetic Apple TV Experience
The problem with TV is too convoluted for mere watchers to understand. It's tied up in content rights, distribution rights, advertising sales, and traditional contracts and methods of business that make everyone fearful of change. The TV industry is turning off its consumers, ensuring a fractured existence of Google Chromecast, Roku, Hulu, and the destined-to-be-a-hobby-forever Apple TV.
12/12/13 5:00 AM PT
It's damn near 2014, and what's the most baffling computing experience we have? The Apple TV television experience. It's so disappointing. We get new so-called TV channels -- or little Applets -- that give us a kaleidoscopic glimpse into the content available from a particular broadcast network, but it's also locked down so we have to be a cable television subscriber to view it.
When I saw the news about the latest batch of TV apps to make it to the Apple TV, including Watch ABC, Bloomberg and Crackle, I had a small, irrational moment of hope. It was quickly dashed, of course, when I realized that Watch ABC is a hobbled app. When I tried to watch an episode of Castle, I was prompted to enter in my cable TV provider. The problem is, I'm a DISH Network subscriber. No option. Imagine if I lived in a sweet urban area with high-quality HD over-the-air reception of ABC. The Watch ABC app would still be useless.
There's got to be a better way. So what do I expect? What should we wish for?
A Simple Wish
My vision is insanely straightforward: I'd like to be able to consume content wherever I am on smart, connected devices with networks, content providers and producers selling advertising to support it. Sounds a lot like traditional TV, right?
Flickering images relate stories or news that so compelling, we're willing to be interrupted to watch unrelated commercials that attempt to manipulate us. We get it. We've been doing it for years. The only difference is the delivery mechanism (Internet plus old-school cable, satellite and over-the-air broadcasts) and the device (smartphone, tablet, PC, smart TV or set-top box).
Instead, what we have are endless hoops and restrictions that basically turn the smartest of us into the TV version of apathetic voters in a disingenuous political system -- more likely to tune out than tune in.
Who Will Finally Stop the Insanity?
I'm willing to buy television shows I really enjoy, like The Walking Dead and Homeland. I don't already get these shows via my bare-bones DISH Network service plan. More to the point, I buy entire seasons. If I couldn't get The Mentalist over traditional TV methods, I'd buy The Mentalist. And Castle. Maybe the NCIS franchises. Maybe. Perhaps The Big Bang Theory at a lower price point.
Would I pay specifically for The Voice? No. Sleepy Hollow? No. But could I become enough of a fan of Sleepy Hollow to buy it or watch it on purpose? Maybe. This is where advertising-based TV shines. I'll watch content I wouldn't normally pay directly for, but only if it's easy to consume.
Force me to jump through a bunch of hoops and impose baffling restrictions, or provide and pull content willy nilly, and I'll tune out. I'd rather have a joking conversation via instant messaging on my iPhone. Which means I'm a lost viewer, and getting more lost to the TV world by the day.
Interestingly, I just became hooked on Justified, which is a small TV series produced by FX. I found it because I could stream it via my Amazon Prime service to my iPhone. I'm on season three. When I catch up, I'll buy the episodes for US$1.99 or $2.99 each on iTunes. What's missing here?
An FX app on my Apple TV. If I could stream Justified from FX on my Apple TV, I'd do that -- and I'd be engaged with advertisers. In addition, I'd be exposed to other FX shows and content. I would watch more "TV." Instead, I'm focused, and I tune out more than ever. And when I buy Justified, sure, that's a gain, but it's a short-term gain. It's like showing and selling cookies to me -- but not lemonade -- on a hot day.
Amazon to the Rescue?
Amazon is a wild and weird company. It has competed with all sorts of businesses and business models, and it has even trashed an industry (traditional publishing) while improving a consumer experience (reading). This summer, Amazon bought the rights to stream the Stephen King book-turned-TV-hit Under the Dome 13-episode season four days after it aired on CBS.
How did I end up a fan? I recorded the first two episodes or so on my traditional DVR system, then missed recording a couple weeks. I eventually started watching the series. I liked it. When I ran out of recorded shows, I caught up via Amazon. I went back to CBS on my traditional TV set for most of the rest of series. Why? It's a better experience because the quality is great, I can record it and play it back at will, and there are no streaming issues or special rules.
Recent reports indicate that CBS sold the rights to stream the little series to Amazon for US$700,000 per episode, exclusively. Now, this is both a success story and a failure. It's a success for me because I'm an Amazon customer. If I were a Netflix customer, I'd be out in the cold. And a CBS fan with a smartphone? Same problem.
Caught in the Middle, Again and Again Forever?
The problem with TV is too convoluted for mere watchers to understand. It's tied up in content rights, distribution rights, advertising sales, and traditional contracts and methods of business that make everyone fearful of change. Remember DVDs? Another case in point. Meanwhile, the TV industry is turning off its consumers, ensuring a fractured existence of Google Chromecast, Roku, Hulu, and the destined-to-be-a-hobby-forever Apple TV.
Consider this: I can't watch an episode of Castle via the new Watch ABC app on my Apple TV. Yet I can watch that episode of Castle at ABC.com on my Mac via my Safari browser and throw it at my HDTV using Apple's AirPlay with my Apple TV. Does this make sense? I even get to watch the ads, but because I wanted a big-screen experience, I can't really click on them now, can I?
Letting consumers gravitate toward excellent, engaging content of their choice using smart, connected devices would be good for the industry, right?
Consider Justified, which is about a U.S. Marshall who wears a cowboy hat and boots. Why aren't I seeing ads for cowboy boots? For a Stetson hat? I might be compelled to check out a pair of boots.
How about NCIS: Los Angeles? Why don't I see ads for the muscle car driven by Senior Field Agent Sam Hanna (LL Cool J)?
Why not the fancy coffee machine that consistently shows up in the cop/writer drama Castle?
Heck, it's almost 2014, right? I don't expect flying cars, but why can't a highly engaged audience for The Walking Dead see an ad for a lotion that might claim to be able to rehydrate the skin of zombies?
Back to the Apple TV
If the Apple TV audience isn't yet huge, why bother making TV apps that require us to jump through hoops? If I were ABC, I would be investing in a whole new company -- Maybe "ABCD" for Digital -- that could produce content that's unfettered by all the old business rules that is holding it back. Why not do things like CBS did with Under the Dome and Amazon, but even better?
The question it comes down to is more about wanting to continue with a business where there's a lot of money being thrown around to dubious effect -- and keeping up the charade as long as possible (traditional TV) -- or doing something radical like trying to serve customers in a way that makes sense.
The Apple TV audience is small now, but it's an audience that could be insanely engaged. Apple TV users are not plopping their butts onto couches in order to zone out on whatever is on. They are actively finding and selecting something that interests them. We don't have an industry that can sell this?
I'm just mad and sad that our most influential consumer technology company -- Apple -- and our smartest creatives in TV -- fewer than a dozen networks -- still can't come together and offer something awesome.
Before I tune out, you read it here: a hand lotion good enough for zombies and the people who still tragically love them? I'd buy it. Heck, I might even become a lifelong customer.