TV – Teaching Sympathy to a Screen

Why has the television viewing experience become so fragmented? What has led to the state of the way things are? Where is the TV experience headed? This episode we explore these questions and more. The answers proved to be more complex than we were expecting, they include power struggle, patents, and Artificial Intelligence.

“Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.”

Woody Allen once said: “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.” Sure, he was referring to television programs themselves, but what does the state of the complex user experience in the living room tell us about the state of television, the industry as a whole?

It’s a mess.

Ideate on this:

  1. What has lead to the current state of content ownership (channels/subscriptions/monetization)?
  2. What has lead to the current state of content discovery (browsing)?
  3. What has lead to the current state of content search (keyboards/remotes/speech)?
  4. How are things getting better?

Content Ownership

To understand part of why the TV Experience is so fragmented, it’s important to have some context.

Somewhere between the age of dinosaurs and the iPhone X we got all our TV from one provider. Everyone gets reruns of the Brady Bunch and Mama’s Family for free. But you want Bevis and Butthead? Make sure you have a cable package that includes MTV. You want the Tracy Ulman show? Get Comedy Central. Racy movies? You’d better have deep pockets for HBO. It was expensive, complicated and you still had to watch commercials.

That’s why we felt so liberated by Hulu. “I can watch any show I want, whenever I want, for free, with way less commercials? Too good to be true!” And it really was. As it turns out, TV is surprisingly expensive to produce. The average TV show can cost $3.5 mil to produce PER EPISODE. Netflix and HBO are inching over $10 million per episode for popular shows like Game of Thrones, surpassing the budget of some Hollywood films. So how do we pay for the content we want?

Traditionally, we can tack on more ads. But brands pay between $25-$75 CPM (cost per one thousand impressions) for a media buy on a service like Hulu depending on the show. There would have to be more Geico ads than episode to pay for The Crown with traditional advertising. That said, the ads seem to be effective. Hulu claims that for every dollar you spend on their services, you can expect up to $2.53 in returns. We could supplement that with product placement in the show itself, but most people hate that more than dedicated commercials.

Of course we can offset the cost of premium content by paying a subscription fee, which is what we’ve always done for premium channels thru our cable provider. But here’s where the user experience is affected. Without a physical network to monopolize content delivery, content across the net is fragmented into separate experiences. Want to watch Star Trek: Discovery? Get the CBS All Access app. Stranger Things? Netflix. The Handmaid’s Tale? Hulu. Want to see our former co worker Aaron Mahnke’s dark hit Lore? Amazon Prime. All these options have their own apps, which they have to support for a host of different viewing platforms. One could argue that this could lead to more innovation, but in reality they’re leading to a whole lot of confusion. Type “How to w” in your Google search bar and see what searches are trending. Users just want to relax. Unfortunately sometimes the simplest option is illegal. Game of Thrones Season 7 has been reportedly pirated over a billion times! That’s a huge loss of revenue. And granted, not all of that can be attributed to bad UX. But HBO’s service options are particularly confusing (I dare you to find a normal human that knows whether they should subscribe to HBO, HBO Go or HBO Now).

Services like Google Play or iTunes offer the buffet of content we all want in one convenient place. But who really wants to buy episodes of TV? I don’t think it’s about money. It’s about the permanence of your decision. Remember how much time you wasted in the video store trying to decide what VHS tape to rent? When it comes to music, most of us have transitioned to a subscription based streaming model like Spotify or Apple Music. But one might argue that while you might listen to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” dozens of times over the course of your life, once you’ve seen what happened in the latest episode of NCIS, do you really ever need to see that again? There was a nice article in 9to5mac several years ago that broke down the financial viability of subscription based streaming version of iTunes. I think many of us had hoped that’s what Apple TV was going to be. Apparently arrogant negotiating tactics hurt their chances at that for the time being.

In the meantime, many users hungering for a singular option have turned to services like Sling TV, and Sony PlayStation Vue which are really just cable replacement services that offer subscription models for various channel tiers that still have commercials. There’s money to be made here for someone that can successfully aggregate these disparate services under one easy to use UI. I would wager that there’s a large untapped market of viewers that would pay more for premium content with less hassle.

Content Discovery

One major contributing factor to a decision about which streaming service to purchase is the content. How can do we discover the shows and movies we’ll like so that we can make an educated decision?

For this we might think back to our childhood. In the checkout aisle next to the candy and tabloids were paperback books aptly named the TV Guide. You might be drawn in by that exclusive interview with David Hasselhoff on the cover, but as you paged past the glossy sheets you’d discover a newsprint spread of… THE GRID. It organized all of you favorite shows into rows and columns based on time and channels so you could program your VCR to just the right slot.

But fast forward in time, past cable boxes and the internet, and we saw less and less of those paperback books. In fact today you might only find them in novelty shops. What happened to TV Guide? The current  state of TV Guide can be summed  up in the number 6,396,546. This is the patent filing for that grid we all used to find stuff to watch on TV. Today, if any system, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, wants to use “The Grid” in their app, they have to pay royalty rights to the current owner of TV Guide (Rovi Corporation).

This leaves content curators with a decision. Do they utilize the tried and true content discovery mechanism  we’re all used to at the expense of their already razor thin margins, or do they force themselves to come up with a new solution?  This is the battle we’re watching unfold on our home entertainment systems.

But hasn’t TV evolved  enough since the 80’s to make room for a more intuitive model of content discovery? @JCalTwo4 tweets, “The only thing I watch on live TV now is football. Hope Armageddon streams on Hulu, cause otherwise I ain’t seein’ nothin’.” In the past we might have allowed the availability of “whatever’s on” to dictate our entertainment decisions. But internet has made browsing only  more relevant. Now, you have  to make a deliberate decision about what to watch. This decision is paralyzing as The Onion cleverly satirized.

So as media giants like Hulu and Netflix battle for market share, promoting quality content in a relevant way is front and center. The win will be awarded to the company with the best information architecture. But innovation is being met with mixed results. @cgrymala tweets: “Seriously; everything else about the redesign is a usability nightmare. It’s like they did UX testing, then did the exact opposite.” This speaks to the core of how the beauty of UI cannot come at the expense of intuitive UX.

Content Search

But let’s assume you know what you want to watch, how do you get to it? The problem comes from all the complexity surrounded by remote usage. Everyone has their own remote and we, the user, are left having to figure out how to use them. Their main problems come from no clear way to do the things you do most often. Every action on a remote is given similar if not equal prominence.

The logitech harmony remote is one of the highest rated remote controls on the market for trying to solve the Bucket o’ Remotes™ issue. (My parents literally have a bucket of remotes to control their tv and various connected devices in their living room.) But it is so confusing to set up that Amazon has a “Expert Setup” on the listing for it that costs almost as much as the remote itself. This in and of itself proves the problem, things are too complex. Time spent on on design at the front end of development of these products could off set much of the need to train users or charge them more money to remove some of the complexity.

Millennials seem to not care as much about having access to live events and/or sporting events. Their experience in general seems to be a lot less difficult. The newer Apple TV box specifically seems to solve a lot of these issues by using a standard called the HDMI-CEC. This newer standard of HDMI cable used to connect a 3rd party device to an otherwise dumb television can control the power and volume, as well as switching to the correct input when needed. As far as content search goes in these cases the complexity is mostly removed by using just one device. Apple TV, Siri. Amazon Fire TV, Alexa. Etc.etc.

The solution then seems to revolve around, not having multiple devices and replacing multiple remotes with one, but with removing all the devices except one and using just the one remote it comes with. 

Getting Better

There is plenty of room for improvement  in entertainment UX. As we explore in episode 2, these are the things we’d like to see:

  1. Standardization of hardware. Let software developers focus their energy on supporting one platform, lowering costs and reducing confusion for consumers.
  2. Integrate data harvested from other sources like wearable biometrics to make content suggestion more intuitive.
  3. Move on. The market is clearly moving to on-demand consumption. Our presentation of that content shouldn’t be “live”.
  4. Collect everything into one place. Surely there’s an equitable way to turn video streaming into a  subscription model.

Here’s our ultimatum. If you don’t let us make these improvements, we just might resort to going outside.

By far the sharpest dresser of the group, Rob is the closest thing we have to a teenager, but thats not saying much (He is 30). When he’s not designing apps, he's playing his guitar at the local coffee shop. He speaks a little French and Spanish and lives in New York but is from Cajun country.

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