March Madness: Inside the best Apple TV feature you’re probably not using

Apple TV’s TV App icon is homely and so on-the-nose, it could have been designed by “Captain Obvious.” That’s a shame because it’s unintentionally hiding some of Apple TV’s best and most innovative features.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve basically ignored the TV App except when I want to access content I own. My primary Apple TV usage scenarios swing between a Siri query (it’s quite effective to say, “Sherlock Homes,” into the otherwise often-annoying remote and get an almost instant thumbnail list of all my available Sherlock viewing options) and direct-to-Netflix app on the home screen for my latest binge (have you watched Black Mirror?!). I also use CBS All Access (Star Trek: Discovery) and the HBO app regularly.

What I never quite understood about the Apple TV App and its companion button on the Apple TV remote (which is slightly better on the Apple TV 4K) is that it’s the true melting pot for all your TV-watching passions and desires.

When I first wrote about Apple’s TV App in late 2016, I accurately identified it as Apple’s idea of “TV.” I also thought the single-sign on and consolidation of content options in one interface might result in consumers spending most of their time in that app. I don’t think that’s happened.

It might be time, though, to revisit TV App, click on the dull icon and peek inside, especially now.

March Madness, a yearly bacchanalia of college basketball hoop dreams and bracket obsession, may have no better home or bigger digital fan than the TV App. Apple launched the NCAA tournament option without much fanfare after Apple SVP Eddy Cue mentioned it on Monday during his SXSW chat.

Let me be clear. I do not watch college basketball. In fact, I don’t watch college sports and struggle to understand the coast-to-coast fascination with this two-week tournament, the Sweet 16 and brackets. I’ve made brackets, but only by using the tried and true method of throwing darts at a bracket on the wall. It serves me well.

That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Apple’s pulled together inside the TV App. Scrolling down past “Up Next” and “What to Watch” (and right above “News”) you’ll find a row of boxes featuring upcoming match-ups, including team logos and game times. Some of the boxes have little red “Live” labels on them and the team insignias are replaced with photos and scores for in-progress games. Clicking on one will take you right to the game.

Apple tells me that the collection of NCAA games in the TV App sports section, which they only launched late last year, are powered by content from Turner, TBS, TNT, ESPN, the NBA App, CBS All Access and the March Madness app. If you have subscription access, either direct (as with the CBS App) or through your cable subscription and you’ve authenticated on Apple TV, all the games can be viewed through Apple’s TV App.

This aligns with Apple’s broader strategy for the TV App, which is the centralization of all your viewing habits, through the magic of single sign on. That ideal, though, has yet to be realized. Even as I sign up through Optimum Cable and allow Apple TV and the TV App to use that authentication, I still must sign into each app and authenticate on a Web page and usually on my PC, since it never works on my iPhone.

Fortunately, you do that once and the more third-party services and apps you sign up for and authenticate with Apple TV, the more powerful the TV App becomes.

Back in the March Madness TV App track, college hoops nuts can keep track of all their bracket picks (though there is no graphical bracket tracking interface) and even have the TV App notify them (on Apple TV, on their iPhone or iPad) when a game is coming up. It can also notify you about close games, so you can tune in and watch your bracket get busted in real time.

There are other sports in the TV App, like Thursday Night Football, thanks to the new integration of Amazon Prime Video, which has license for those games.

Much of what you see in the TV App is programmatic, but there are also editors who are managing those alerts and make the tough choices about what constitutes a close score and what, during a game, is even interesting.

For me, it would be my favorite team, the Mets, working on a no hitter or perfect game. Apple agrees that that would be exactly the kind of sports moment that would trigger a notification. Sadly, Apple has yet to close a deal with MLB, though they say it’s right around the corner.

If you’re not a sports nut (raises hand) there are other pleasures to be found in the TV App. Since Apple TV knows what you watch, the What’s Next is auto populated with content that might interest you. For me, that would be the next episode of Star Trek: Discovery when it returns next year. For others it might be the new episode of The John Oliver Show.

And in the Trending Area, you see not just popular movies, but what’s in the zeitgeist. When I looked a few days ago, there was The Theory of Everything. The Stephen Hawking biopic naturally bubbled to the surface after the world-renowned physicist died on March 14.

Even if you don’t spend much time in TV App’s vast content well, you might appreciate the library of your own content. I don’t have a lot because, to be honest, I stream instead of buy. But I do have a dozen or so HD titles. They look good on my HDTV. I do not yet own a 4K set. However, when I finally get one, I won’t be rebuying my titles. Anything I bought through Apple as an HD movie will, when available, automatically get updated to 4k in my library, and it won’t cost me a thing.

Apple hasn’t solved TV, but the consolidation of a dizzying array of services and content is a smart path forward. I do wish Apple would consolidate its own Apple TV vision by bubbling all that up to the surface interface of Apple TV (some of it is already there). Sure, the TV App can live on in the iPhone and iPad, but it’s redundant on the Apple TV. Plus, I hate that icon. It simply must go.