Yo, Apple TV — If You Want To Beat Cable, Become More Like It In This One Way

15 years ago, Apple first succeeded in the music industry by making music easier to access and listen to.

Many songs — a thousand songs — available at once in an on-demand library was the iPod’s most sellable feature.

It doesn’t sound impressive now but, at the time, it was a game changer for music lovers. Before 2001, we could listen on-demand to 24 or so songs on a CD (maybe 120 if you were cool and had a 5-CD changer).

The iPod also helped soften the taste-making importance of radio stations and DJs. We no longer had to wait for someone on the radio to play a song we wanted to hear again — we could simply push a button and listen to whatever we wanted whenever we wanted.

But radio, while its evolved into digitally, still exists in its basic form. As a medium for music, it’s here to stay.

And it’s staying power is a big reason why Apple acquired Beats by Dre in 2014 — to integrate a radio component, Beats 1 Radio, to iTunes. It was a smart move.

Here’s why: people like to actively and passively listen to music. In other words, sometimes we like to choose what to listen to and sometimes we like someone to choose for us. iTunes took off by giving us a more active role in choosing our own music but now, with radio, it allows us to delegate that choice to curators (i.e radio stations) when we feel like it.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Apple TV?

For Apple to succeed in TV, it must give us a way to more passively watch shows and movies on its Apple TV. It must include, in addition to its on-demand app library of shows and movies, live streaming channels. Why channels? They make it easier to sample content without committing to it (i.e channel surfing). More importantly, flipping through channels requires less effort and decision-making for the viewer. It takes less than a second to click to the next channel on your cable tv remote, but it takes at least a couple of clicks to get out of one app on Apple and to the next one. With the cable TV interface, content is served to you instantly.

(The Apple TV UI)

This is not an original suggestion. And it doesn’t apply just to Apple TV — it applies to any next generation streaming service like Netflix, Roku, and Amazon Instant Video.

In 2014, a Wired article written by Kyle VanHemert argued that Netflix needs the “quietly brilliant UI of regular TVs” to grow:

“Netflix offers thousands of options for what to watch, but instead of giving you a chance to skip through and sample them, it makes you evaluate each one, like a title on a video-store shelf.
In both cases, the experience has become more about selecting a piece of content than simply watching TV. The result? More ends up feeling like a lot less.”
That’s the central problem plaguing both set top boxes like Roku and Apple TV and content services like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Instead of letting you lean back and soak up content, these new challengers require decisions–a careful cost-benefit analysis of thousands of different options. If the traditional TV experience is about letting viewers surf channels, today’s on-demand video is like giving them a speedboat and forcing them choose a destination before they can even get in the water.
It’s the fundamental reason smart TV and streaming video user interfaces pale in comparison to regular TV for so much of our daily viewing. And it’s a shame. The channels we’ve always known are the perfect interface for TV. For some reason, we seem hell-bent on abandoning them.”

A post on Reddit 2 years later, titled “Netflix needs channel surfing” called for this same idea.

“I’ve always wondered why Netflix didn’t have channels like cable or satellite does. Channels that “air” random content 24/7 that you can flip through. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m in the mood for or maybe my viewer taste varies from my typical interests. Maybe I just want to watch random episodes of a random show.
Having the ability to flip through USA, TNT, HGTV, AMC, Sy-fi, or FX content would greatly enhance my user experience, improve my taste preferences, and expose me to content is otherwise never see. Netflix has expressed interest in streaming live TV and sports. What better way to beta a cable/satellite service than to give viewers channels to surf of movies and TV shows?”

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has said that “TV is one that we continue to have great interest in, but TV is one of those things that, if we’re really honest, it’s stuck back in the seventies.”

That’s true. And streaming services like Apple TV, like the iPod years before it, has made it easier for people to choose content on-demand. But there’s a reason why TV has “remained stuck in the seventies.” TV has channels. And channels, like radio stations, help people more easily choose and digest content. Until Apple integrates a streaming channel feature, like iTunes did with Beats radio, I bet there will continue to be more cable boxes in the U.S and worldwide than Apple TVs.

If you want to beat cable, Apple, put channels on Apple TV.