Archive

TV Devices

TV remotes

I recently received a message from Amazon urging me to watch its video programming, which is included in my Amazon Prime membership.  That certainly seemed like a good suggestion — until the time came when I actually wanted to watch something.

The video-viewing apparatus in my living room consists of a stack of machines and devices — but to my disappointment, none of them offer Amazon Prime, not even my much-hyped Apple TV.  Sure I could watch Prime on my laptop, and last year I did, in fact, watch Amazon’s “Catastrophe” that way, but the experience convinced me that watching “TV” on a laptop while seated bolt-upright in front of a desk is about as satisfying as eating dinner standing in front of the sink.  From a utilitarian perspective they both accomplish their main task, but the aesthetics leave something to be desired.

Preferring to watch video entertainment on my HDTV monitor, I decided to solve the Amazon Prime problem by ordering a six-foot HDMI cable, which I can hook up to my computer when I want to stream onto the TV.

But what a pain in the neck.  Already sitting on my viewing stand are five remotes that control: 1) the monitor; 2) the DVR; 3) the DVD player; 4) my Apple TV; and 5) a cable-splitter device to switch from cable to cable. Now I have a separate cable to connect my laptop.

And it’s not as if these other devices are that easy to master.  The navigation on the Apple TV is so sensitive that I’m constantly landing on the wrong icon or the wrong show.  Of course to get even this far I needed to go online many times to check Apple TV instructions, since there was no manual with the device itself.  And even now, after all these years, I don’t understand why the DVR will sudden stop recording shows on my watch list, or why I get reruns when I specifically set the directions to record first-time-only broadcasts.

Whenever I complain about the complexity of watching TV, I feel like the old coot yelling at the neighborhood ruffians to stop playing on his grass.  Why can’t I be more like my Millennial son, who watches TV while lying on his bed with his laptop propped on his stomach?  Get out of the way of progress ,you geezer!

Of course we have to be careful not to romanticize the past.  One of the earliest television clichés was the image of the 1950s dad on the roof trying to position the antenna just right, so TV was frequently a pain the neck even in the days of yore.  Cable solved the antenna problem but created its own challenges with the cable box, which required its own remote control.  And the VCR was so complicated that most people only used it to play videos, not to record anything.

It seems like every time we master one form of technology, the device industrial complex invents another must-have machine. We now live in a world when no one can go into another person’s home and confidently change the TV channel without screwing up the system.  That’s a lesson I’ve learned over too many Christmas visits to my parents’ house.

Figuring out how to work the devices is bad enough — but finding something to watch is even worse.  I know there’s a ton of content to watch, but where to find it?  I’d really like to watch “Orphan Black,” but have no idea how to do that.  I see from a Google search that it’s on BBC America.  Is that part of my cable package?  I guess I could look, assuming I can find my channel guide?  Or maybe it’s on Netflix, but the search function is really hard on Netflix.

I’m glad there are so many great shows to watch and so many ways to watch them, but it seems like “television” is about to collapse on itself from the weight of its own complexity.

In the meantime, maybe I’ll just stick to Colbert.  He’s on every night and is waiting for me on the DVR whenever I get home.  Sometimes the path of least resistance is the best option.

Advertisements

Parents and two teenagers watching television, indoors

Every time my wife and I discuss household spending, her first idea is to cancel HBO.  This has been her opening gambit so many times it’s almost become a tic.

I don’t want to imply that the $200 we spend annually on HBO is chicken feed, but if we really wanted to save $200, I’m sure we could do better than that by comparison shopping our many insurance policies (health, homeowners and auto), better insulating the house, or switching away from all that organic produce.

It’s not as if we never watch HBO.  We’ve devoured “True Detective,” laughed at “Veep” and made generous use of our HBO-GO account.  I don’t think my wife has any particular animus against HBO; it’s just that the size of that cable bill really sticks in her craw.

She’s not alone.  Last year’s American Consumer Index Survey revealed that Americans hate cable companies and Internet service providers more than any industries.  That’s a lot of hate for a sector that doesn’t pollute the environment, manufacture weapons of mass destruction or foreclose on our houses.

Those of us who remember free TV resent paying for cable at all.  But in fairness, no one’s putting a gun to our heads. Cable television is a discretionary expenditure.  There are about 10 million homes that watch TV the old-fashioned way: over the air.  I actually know a family like this. Of course they watch “Mad Men” when it comes out on Netflix and skip cable sports altogether.  And because they don’t have a DVR, they miss their favorite shows if they’re not home.  I know, it’s like they’re the Cleavers — or the Flintstones.  But they survive.

If they so desired, cable companies could make the same argument that Whole Foods does: Sure, the sticker price is higher, but the quality is so good that it’s actually a better “value.”  With cable you can get that DVR and a huge assortment of networks and programming.

There is some truth to this argument. When TV was “free,” it wasn’t nearly as good or convenient, and people didn’t watch as much of it as they do today.

But while TV is worth paying for, I’m reminded of that chart in classical economics where the demand line intersects with the supply line, and the intersection point is supposed to determine the price. For many millions, the price of television is no longer at that intersection point.  The unending increases in the cable bill threaten to undermine the entire business model of the business, which is getting people to watch the ads on ad-supported programs or to subscribe to premium channels.

The problem is that once the cable bill passes a couple of hundred dollars a month, consumers get desperate to cut costs and start looking for ways out.  It’s kind of like the cost of gasoline: Once the price gets above their comfort zone, people will spend tens of thousands of dollars to buy a car with better gas mileage just to save a thousand dollars a year on gasoline.  It’s not logic, it’s emotion.

Television is suffering from another principle of classical economics: the tragedy of the commons, in which people act rationally according to their own self-interest even though it ruins a common interest and undermines the interest of the whole — in this case, the good will of the cable consumer.  TV networks must know that exorbitant cable bills are bad for the industry, but each wants to squeeze every last dime out of the cable viewer.   Why should one network show restraint during retransmission negotiations when it knows a rival network will demand the most it can get?

Will cable go the way of the telephone company?  More than half of households no longer have or use their landline phones, the result of decades of increasing prices and indifferent service.  Maybe, but what cable has going for it is inertia and (relative) simplicity.

The New York Times’ Emily Steel recently published a helpful guide on the numerous streaming services you could use if you did cut the cord. The piece makes clear that if you’re an average TV consumer watching 17 different channels a month, it might be a little cheaper — but certainly not easier — to duplicate your viewing experience on an a la carte basis. You could probably cobble together most of the broadcast networks and many of the key cable networks through a combination of Sony’s PlayStation Vue ($50/month), Dish’s Sling TV ($20/month) and Apple TV ($20-$40/month).  You might save some money, but what a pain in the neck to juggle all these services on different devices, especially on those nights when the Internet connection is balky.

But as my wife’s preoccupation with HBO shows, purchasing decisions are not rational.  I honestly don’t know where the pain point is for us to cut the cord, but it does exist, even if it’s more aggravation for not much savings.  All I can say is, I hope we never reach it, because I enjoy sitting back and watching TV with as few devices as possible.  Please take pity on us, oh Lords of Television!

LG-Google-TV-Remote-300x168

It’s hard to overestimate the role that TV plays in contemporary American life.  Its effects are so pervasive and fundamental that we no longer even notice them.  Like any essential institution, though, television can be exasperating, overwhelming, or unsatisfying.  So, as we slip deeper into the summer doldrums, this might be a good time to fantasize about ways to improve the television experience.  Here are 10 suggestions:

1.     A pan-platform TV Guide.  With the increased availability of video streaming, it’s possible to download and watch your favorite TV shows well after they’ve run.  Great! But how do you find these shows?  Are they on a network’s website? On Hulu? On Amazon Prime? On Netflix?  Do you need a special app? You can’t just Google the show’s name and find out. Instead, you have to hunt down and search each potential website.  How much better it would be if there were one master website that could direct you to the correct portal.

2.     The Obituary Channel.  This is a concept borrowed from my former colleague Frank Palumbo. There used to be a TV channel just for trials (Court TV); why isn’t there one for the recently departed?   The channel could include breaking news coverage related to the deaths of famous personages, as well as biopics and documentaries. And don’t forget the live coverage of the funerals of the top A-Listers.

3.     Better coverage of TV ratings.  This is one of my pet peeves, articulated in greater detail previously, but every year, as more and more people timeshift their TV watching, the media’s fixation on overnight ratings for the 18-49 demographic becomes more and more ridiculous.  Except for sports and the news, the overnight ratings are essentially meaningless because more viewers will frequently watch a show via a DVR than see it live.  Consequently, it would be better to wait until the DVR ratings are in before reporting viewing in the media.  And can we skip the 18-49 call-outs while we’re at it? People 50+ watch TV too, and sometimes even buy the things that are advertised.

4.     More reality on reality shows.  I’m not sure who coined the phrase “reality television,” but there’s very little reality in that genre.  The producers clearly drive the plots, conflicts and even some of the dialogue to the point where there’s little difference between a show like “Duck Dynasty” and a traditional scripted sitcom.  To that end, I’d like to see a rating system on each show that signals how much is “real” and how much is producer-directed.  A “1” would indicate minimal involvement, while a “5” would reflect heavy coaching and wacky suggested hijinks from the producers.

5.     Commercial choice.  The bane of the TV viewer’s existence is commercials, with entire technologies built around commercial avoidance.  That’s not because people hate commercials – they just hate a lot of the commercials they are forced to watch repeatedly.  But what if people could choose their own commercials?  This is kind of a reverse targeting, where the consumer chooses the commercial instead of the other way around.  This would pressure advertisers to make ads more engaging and interesting.

6.     Universal Remote.  This is hardly a new idea. Viewers have been complaining about multiple remotes since the introduction of the first VCR, but it’s 35 years later and we are no closer to the dream of a single remote that operates the sound and channel selection for the TV, DVR, cable box, Apple TV, Chromecast, and DVD player.  I have five remotes now and, what’s worse, have no idea what two-thirds of the buttons do.  If we can put a man of the moon…

7.     A reality show about nude dating: Oh, wait, we already have that.

8.     A mega-device box: This is the pipe dream of all pipe dreams.  Instead of separate boxes for cable, DVD, Apple TV, game console, etc., why can’t they all be incorporated into one mega-device?  And instead of getting a whole new cable box every time we move, why can’t we just take the box with us? In other words, instead of the cable companies buying the boxes from the manufacturers and renting them to us, why can’t we buy directly from the manufacturer and own our boxes? That’s what happened with landline telephones — which, believe it or not, kiddies, we used to rent from Ma Bell.

9.     Make network executives and media kingpins watch TV with their families:  If the people who greenlight and oversee the junk that’s on TV had to watch these shows with their kids, parents and grandkids, I am 100% certain we’d have better TV.  After all, who wants to have his 10-year-old granddaughter turn to him and ask, “Dodo – why are that man and woman walking around without any clothes on?”

10.  A “favorites” list.  I literally have no idea how many channels are on my TV, and no matter how much “Man Men” and “Justified” I watch, I cannot remember the AMC and FX channel numbers.  Let’s have an easy menu that lets you click on your favorite channels.

The chances for any of these ideas being adopted?  Probably zero, given the inertia and special interests that afflict the TV business. But it’s summer and we can dream, can’t we?

Chromecast

We are not a family of early adopters, but we’re definitely a family of adopters.  Someone’s always telling us about a new device or streaming service — and the next thing you know, it’s under the Christmas tree or in a pile of birthday presents.

You’d think that the more ways there are to watch TV the happier you’d be, but you’d be wrong.  If anything, more choice creates more stress because it’s frustrating to know you’re not getting as much out of your devices as you should be.

When people talk about cord-cutting, I wonder if they’ve really thought through what it would be like to go cold turkey using the current generation of electronic gadgets. For me, the only way I could manage it would be to consign myself to a life of fiddling, rejiggering and silent cursing.

To start with, I can’t think of anything more misnamed than “cord-cutting,” because now we have more cords than ever before.  We have connecting cords for our cable box, DVR, DVD player, Apple TV, Chromecast and laptop.  The problem is that there are only two HDMI ports at the back of the TV monitor, so every time we want to watch a different device we have to pull back the TV table, lean over and fumble with the cords and the ports. We’ve also got a plethora of power cords, since each of these devices (except for the Apple TV) needs electricity.  I’ve been told there’s yet another box we can use to consolidate all our cords, but I can’t bear the idea of introducing one more piece of electronics and the attendant remote (we already have four of them) into our living room.

In addition to collecting devices, we subscribe to a myriad of paid streaming services: Netflix, HBO-Go, Amazon Prime, and MLB for starters.  Unfortunately, there’s a certain amount of interoperability between the devices and the services.  The Chromecast should be the answer to my dreams since I should theoretically be able to just sit on my couch and stream shows from my iPod.  Alas, Amazon Prime, which is turning out to be a go-to source for shows I’ve forgotten to record, is unavailable on Chromecast. So to watch unrecorded shows, I need to haul out my laptop and connect it to my TV (along with the aforementioned fiddling with cords and ports).

Then there’s the problem with finding the shows you want to watch in the first place.  After all the positive end-of-season press for “Broad City,” I wanted to watch some episodes to see whether I liked it.  Well, you can’t just Google “‘Broad City’ Streaming” and expect to be directed someplace where you can watch full episodes.  You’ll get linked to YouTube clips and weird unknown sites that appear to function primarily as cookie-planting services.  What about the Comedy Central site?  Nope, just clips.  How about Hulu?  Once again, just clips.  What about Amazon Prime?  Yes, full episodes of “Broad City” are available there for $1.99 each or $6 for the whole season.

So after spending $99 on Prime, $30 for a Chromecast and God-knows-what for the iPad, it appears that the only way to watch “Broad City” now is to spend even more money, download it to the laptop, and hook it up to the TV.

Maybe I’m just being an old crank.  After all, the primary way my 22-year-old son watches video is sitting with a MacPro in his lap, which to my aching bones seems uncomfortable and bad for his posture.

To me, it’s plain that before these devices can become a major source of TV viewing, they’ve got to get a lot easier to use.  To watch a TV show I don’t want to spend 15 minutes Googling it, then paying extra for it, then rearranging the wires in back of my set. This is not a lean-back experience – and don’t we mostly watch TV as an escape from this kind of aggravation in the first place?

In the end, after buying all the devices and paying for all the services, the way my wife and I usually watch video is the old fashioned way: via the DVR.  Thank goodness for early 21st century technology.