The Atomic Unit of TV is NOT “The App”

The atomic unit of television viewing is NOT the app. This fundamental problem is at the heart of the still app-centric AppleTV experience. What we really need is not an app list, but rather a simple, dynamic menu of fresh entertainment options.

The viewer does not care if Two Broke Girls and Agents of Shield are on the same channel. They shouldn’t be asked to remember if one show is on CBS and another is on ABC. Most television “Apps” are built around this incredibly dated notion of the “Channel”. Within a few minutes of using my new AppleTV, I have a dozen channels on my screen… and nothing to watch!

This is one of the major thing that Tivo solved so many years ago: My parents endlessly channel surf… hoping to find something to watch in the moment. They hop back and forth between an ever increasing number of channels, but ultimately watching relatively little.

When I got my first Tivo, time shifting changed my life: I can’t imagine having to remember what time Walking Dead is on, and structure my life to be in my living room at that time. But the side effect is that I also shouldn’t have to care that it airs on AMC. Tivo gave me a menu of entertainment that disregarded Time as well as Source whenever I sat down on my couch.

iOS uses that ubiquitous ‘red dot’ on apps. This would be nice, but since Apps are typically still just wrappers around channels it will just create endless clutter. I either need to learn a mechanism to ‘Favorite’ shows in each of 20 apps, manage notifications, or risk being told of every program airing on a network. This is the problem with most homepages on the internet today: endless headlines vying for my attention, when I only really want the one somewhere in the middle.

Since the icons on a TV screen are necessarily large, you could only see a small number of apps anyway. Throw in folders and multiple screens and you’re not going to find the thing you want anyway. The red dot helps me distinguish between a small number of items, but it’s useless when after a handful.

Another solutions would be to install Show Based Apps instead of Channel Based Apps. Instead of having 10 channel apps, each containing 20 shows, of which i only care of 1 or 2, I now have 15 or 20 apps, each representing one of the shows I want. Then the red dot makes a lot of sense. But finding the right show is still a pain.

You could also re-order the apps automatically based on the amount of unwatched material, but humans don’t like it when you move things around on them. How many rage quits have you performed on a web browser tab when a late loading ad shoves the text out from under your eye?

Apple could implement some sort of Queue and the OS level. A globalized playlist that spans apps. There is parallel to this already in the form of the Safari reading list. You use that, right? Every day? No? Oh yeah, me either. The other problem is that they would get app makers to incorporate an ‘Add to Queue’ button into their apps which effectively sacrifices the app makers control of their experience.

I assume Apple expects Siri to help with this problem. I don’t have to remember which App contains my next unwatched episode of Archer, I just say “Let me watch Archer” and I’m brought back to the right place. This exists today, but it’s clunky: I still have several choices to make in order to just get to my show. If I watched the last episode on Netflix, am I really going to pay $1.99 to watch the next episode on iTunes?

The one thing that I really do like about the Appifying of my TV is that games and television increasingly are sharing real estate. This is how it ought to be: A game of flappy bird and episode of Face Off are similar in that they each represent a few minutes of idle entertainment. I shouldn’t have to switch to the Wii U and insert a disc to play a game, and then switch back to my Tivo in order to watch the next episode of Doctor Who.

So that brings me back to the menu. This is the thing that Tivo nailed so many years ago: one screen was the menu of things I wanted to watch, and another screen was suggestions of more stuff to watch. What I need is the distraction free menu that brings together the newest unwatched episodes of the shows I am watching (ignoring the ‘App’ or ‘Channel’ that contains it) and places them into a UI that knows that the Television Show is just one form of entertainment available to my TV screen- watching Stampy Longnose on youtube with my kids is really no different than playing Mario Kart. My menu just needs to know what stuff is fresh today.

The AppleTV is much improved. The remote is really swell. Siri needs a lot of work, but I can see it being helpful in a few versions. But if my TV becomes a wasteland of 50 apps and I can’t figure out that a new episode of The Soup is available, then I might as well be forced to remember that it airs on E! at 10pm on fridays and start popping the corn at 9:50 or else risk missing the first joke. So I think for now I’ll be sticking with the Tivo for my core TV watching.

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