I can’t believe I’m about to write these words, but…I kind of miss cable TV.
Now before you pile on, I know. I’ve lost no sleep over cable’s slow demise. The consumer experience was…not great. We paid for 500 channels of dreck, but watched, on average, five of them (or something like that). Decades of regional monopoly gave cable television scant reason to innovate — resulting in legendarily bad customer service, instantly out of date hardware, and utterly inscrutable remote controls (admit it, you could never find the mute button, could you?!).
Streaming was supposed to change all that. The great unbundling meant consumers could choose which channels they wanted, and we’d all save money. Just as it did with music, technological innovation promised to reinvent a stagnant industry. We’d get all the wonderfulness of great television combined with the ease of the open internet! I for one couldn’t wait for it all to materialize.
Until it actually did. And it was…exponentially worse.
If you’re like the majority of American consumers, you probably cut the cord in the past five years. If you’re under 30, you likely never had a cord. When I dumped cable, I was instantly giddy. My $200 bill disappeared, replaced by $25 for YouTubeTV (so I could get sports and news, naturally), and a handful of $5-$10 additions — Netflix, Showtime, HBO. It was infinitely better, and less than half the cost. Sure, I had to juggle a few services, and not all of them played well with my Google Chromecast (my preferred way of getting TV programming from my phone to the big screen TV), but it was worth the effort. I was a trailblazer!
Four years’ worth of “tech innovation” later, my television experience is a nightmare melange of competing tech and media platforms, none of which play nice together, and all of which are incomplete. Oh, and the bill? It’s back at $200 again.
How’d we get here?
First off, YouTubeTV is now $65 a month. That’s some impressive price leverage! Add $5 for Apple, $18 for Netflix, $15 for HBO Max, $8 for Hulu, $11 for Showtime, $20 for MLBTV, and another $50 or so for a bunch of other channels — and, well, now I’m paying the same price for an inferior experience. Want to watch a show? First remember which service it’s on, then remember your password, then navigate an entirely non-standard user interface to find the show, then cross your fingers and hope the platform supports streaming to your device of choice. If it doesn’t, you might just end up watching the show on your phone. ON A PHONE!
And don’t get me started on those “smart TVs.” LG, Sony, Samsung, Google, Vizio — the whole lot of them have infected what used to be a simple piece of glass with impossibly complicated bloatware that has one goal: Locking you into their ecosystem. It’s madness.
But guess what’s even worse? Yep…the ads. Remember how streaming was supposed to make the commercials better? Tailored to your interests, unobtrusive, data-enriched? I edited a cover story for Wired about all of this — in 1994! 30 years later, our industry still hasn’t figured out how to manage reach and frequency in a connected world. And from my own experience deep in the bowels of the connected television industry, this problem won’t be fixed for a long, long time.
So let’s review: Compared to cable, streaming television has 1. A far worse user interface 2. Little to no cost advantage and 3. A far worse advertising experience — for both consumer AND advertiser. In fact, the only thing that has gotten materially better — and this is absolutely true — is the television programming itself.
So how might we fix this mess? Well, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d start by creating an open, neutral protocol to which all streaming services adhered. This protocol would allow any and all streaming services to bundle their content with their business model (subscriptions, advertising, distribution policies, and the like). Anyone could then take that protocol and build what I call a “meta service” around it. Entrepreneurs would compete to build aggregate services which solved the consumer experience problem — which by default would also solve the marketers’ problems as well. Imagine: one place to find all your television, with one interface to rule them all. Kind of like cable used to be — but better.
We have the technology, we have the design chops, and we certainly have the content. We just need to get out of our own way. Come on, television industry: Let’s fix this mess!