Since joining a media company six months ago, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking to people about what’s happening with TV and where it’s headed. The same topics keep coming up.
As I’ve heard more opinions on these topics, I’ve started to form my own (or at least pick the side of the debate I like best). Some are based on a good conversation, some are based on the reality of building/growing connected TV and VR products today and some are based on stuff we’ve seen play out with other media (ex. music) or other platforms (ex. mobile).
So, in no particular order, a few thoughts:
Eight months ago, Tim Cook said “the future of TV is apps.”
So what? What does it mean to go from TV channels to apps?
One transformative implication: developers can now build the environments in which viewers watch shows. This is fundamentally different from traditional TV where the design and functionality of every channel is essentially the same. The user experience of a traditional TV channel is limited to (1) tune in and (2) watch. The user experience of an app is, in theory, limitless.
The HBO Go App can be different from the Showtime Anytime App in ways that HBO could never be different from Showtime.
Now that TV experiences can be different, there is a good debate about how and why they should be different. Ultimately the goal is to make watching content as frictionless, delightful and engaging as possible for viewers.
But people disagree about how viewers want to experience an on-demand streaming service. The three most common takes I’ve heard:
- Make it like Netflix: everyone knows and uses Netflix. Make your service look like Netflix and you’ll be fine.
- Make it like (cable) TV: everyone knows cable TV. The most frictionless viewing experience is when a show begins playing for the viewer automatically, just like tuning into a traditional TV channel. Browsing Netflix-style thumbnails is actually a pretty difficult way to decide on something to watch. And so On-Demand is a feature but “what’s on” should be the default interface.
- Make it like an App: every streaming service should be designed for its particular content and use case. For comparison, I can read the same article on my phone through many different apps — The New York Times app feels a certain way, Flipboard feels a certain way, Nuzzel feels a certain way, Pocket feels a certain way and, of course, Medium feels a certain way. They organize and display content differently. They onboard users differently. They have different features for curating, saving, consuming and engaging with content and other users. Why? Because they are all optimizing user experiences for a different value proposition and use case. As more streaming services launch, more use cases and value propositions will emerge and, in turn, so too will a diversity of user experiences.
Thinking about the future of TV, I can’t help but agree with number 3 above. Creative people tend to take advantage of new creative space and opportunity. There is a better TV experience than tune in and watch. And there is a better VOD experience than search, browse thumbnails and watch.
But we’re not there yet because it’s early days on these connected TV platforms and everyone is still trying to grab real estate: being the first documentary streaming service, the first anime streaming service or the first nature streaming service can be very valuable in the long run. And so today there is a premium placed on speed-to-market over user experience. This — combined with the popularity of opinion #1 above — is why all streaming services look basically the same today.
The same thing happened in 2012 when every business woke up and needed to move from desktop to mobile. We just need an app! Soon enough, all of your competitors had an app too and they all looked the same. We need the best app!
A nature streaming service should let you explore the globe or seamlessly dive into a Wikipedia article on whales. A cooking streaming service should help you build a grocery list and automatically save it to your phone. A DIY streaming service should let you order a kit of supplies. An NBA streaming service should let you pick the announcers you want to hear¹ or record your own with friends. The future of TV user experiences will be more diverse, exciting and customized.
Note: this isn’t to say great content is not King. It is. And a streaming service with subpar content will not be saved by a great user experience. But soon enough, everyone with content will have real estate, everything will be in competition with everything else (just like TV channels today) and the best user experiences will be a meaningful source of competitive differentiation.
A major challenge for connected TV developers today is platform fragmentation. This makes it a frequent topic of conversation.
You can make a legitimate case that in order to achieve significant international growth today, an OTT service should be available on (in no particular order) Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung and LG Smart TVs, Roku, Xbox, Playstation, plus web and mobile/tablet. While there are some shortcuts and efficiencies to port one app over to another platform, many of these devices require custom development.
In case you weren’t counting, that’s 9 platforms :/
There are two main approaches to dealing with platform fragmentation as a developer: hedge your bets (build for all 9 platforms, spend more money and risk wasting time on a platform that wanes) or make a bet (build for a small number of key platforms, spend less and risk not being present on a key platform in early days).
One typical assumption of the make a bet approach is that the current state of fragmentation cannot last. Platforms sit between customers and developers. To attract customers, a platform needs to offer all the best and newest services/shows. To attract developers, a platform needs to offer distribution to the greatest number of potential customers. Catch-22.
At some point, the scale tips and developers flock towards a particular platform. If the history of mobile is any indicator, one might reasonably guess that Roku and Samsung will both adopt Android TV as the OS of choice in order to attract more developers (and, in turn, more customers).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the current state of platform fragmentation can hold. I don’t know if the endgame for TV is Android vs. Apple but it’s as good a bet as any and IMO less fragmentation would be a good thing for both developers and customers.
One of the most popular debates on the future of TV concerns the future of the bundle.
From a great article in Punchcard Investing:
A third feature of the pay-TV industry is the big bundle…Aggregators with requisite leverage are able to force distributors to acquire both their most popular channels and their least popular channels in one big bundle…The result of the big bundle is that every subscriber is cross-subsidizing someone else’s viewing preference.
[Over time] The big bundle got more and more bloated. Most consumers watch only a small fraction of the channels they receive. They average USTV home now receives 189 TV channels and watches 17. This leads to frustration and a search for cheaper alternatives.
Combine this frustration with the well-publicized increase of cord-cutting and you get The Great Unbundling: the doorway to a world where consumers pick and choose a handful of streaming services to subscribe to a la carte. Everything on-demand. Only the content you want, none of the channels you don’t need. Let freedom reign.
The problem with an unbundled world is that it is profoundly expensive for the end-user. Again, from Punchcard:
If you tried to assemble your own bundle from available services on an a la carte basis, adding a $7 subscription here and a $15 service there quickly gets expensive. A 17-channel bundle selected a la carte could cost as much as a 200 channel bundle today.
So add me to the list of folks predicting that The Great Unbundling will be followed by (or perhaps replaced by) a Great Re-Bundling, where consumers are able to purchase packages of VOD services/channels from a distribution platform at a price lower than purchasing each of those services individually.
You can see early indications of this with Amazon’s Streaming Partners Program. Hulu also just announced a free trial bundled with Showtime Anytime. These distributors are the gatekeepers (the same way as Time Warner Cable, Virgin Media, etc. are the gatekeepers of cable bundling) and hold the keys to scalable distribution to viewers.
Amazon. YouTube. Hulu. Pay-TV providers. Smart TV manufacturers. Snapchat? It will be very interesting to see who else emerges as a gatekeeper in The Great Re-Bundling.
Bonus Scene: VR
From Benedict Evans:
Someone said recently, only slightly flippantly, that you can divide the world into people who think that VR is part of the future and people who haven’t had the demo yet.
Having had the demo, I can definitively say VR is part of the future and, importantly, part of the future of TV.
But I also know some folks who have had the demo and say that VR is a novelty which will not scale or go mainstream as a content platform (i.e. for non-gamers).
This argument is usually based on a certain type of VR experience that’s typical of the majority of today’s early/experimental VR content. This content is focused on immersion: put on this headset and you are underwater/in space/in the desert/in Westeros. Immersion on its own, as it turns out, is a bit of a novelty and can become boring very quickly.
But the future of VR content is not just immersion. The future of VR content is the same thing that has worked on every other platform (theatre, books, radio, television): great storytelling. To be and stay engaged, we need to understand where we are and where we are going (or that we will be going somewhere).
Storytelling in VR is more impactful, more engaging and will become truly interactive. It’s hard to imagine how this will not be a part of the future of TV. More likely, it will be one of the most exciting and transformative evolutions of the medium.
Ok that’s all (for now). I didn’t get to Facebook and Twitter but I absolutely believe they are both part of the future of TV (specifically live sports and live events).
It’ll be fun to look back on this in a few years and see how it all goes.
Please hit me up on Twitter (@jbefored) if you want to come work on building OTT/VR products with us at Blue Ant Media.