The future of TV is chaos and confusion
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Friday, we’re taking a look at how smart TV platforms are failing to simplify search and discovery. Also: what to read, watch and play this weekend.
It’s been seven years since Tim Cook famously declared that “the future of TV is apps.” Since then, almost everyone in the industry, including Apple, has come to the conclusion that Cook was wrong. Turns out that people don’t want to spend their evenings jumping from one app to another just to find something to watch.
The industry’s new paradigm is “content first.” Amazon, Google, Samsung and others all have begun to bring personalized content recommendations directly to the TV home screen. Add universal search and watch lists, and people don’t even have to think about where a show streams from anymore — or so goes the theory.
Content first is a good idea, don’t get me wrong. However, in reality it has turned into the opposite of what it was supposed to achieve: Instead of giving people easier access to their favorite shows, it is trapping them in illogical loops caused by business disputes. What’s more, content first has led to a world in which every app, service and surface tries to do everything, everywhere, all at once, and badly so.
- A good example of this is “Yellowjackets.” The drama about a high school soccer team that survives a plane crash aired on Showtime in 2021. If I ask my Google TV-powered smart TV for it, it tells me to watch the show on Amazon Prime Video.
- Following that link, I am informed that I can only watch the first episode for free, but then have to subscribe to Showtime through Amazon — which I can’t do on my TV because Amazon doesn’t want to share its subscription revenue with Google.
- But wait: Google TV offers five more ways to watch the show! Apparently, I can also watch it by subscribing to Showtime, Paramount+ and Showtime Anytime, which all seems like it should be the same thing by now, if only Paramount had gotten its act together.
- Google TV points to Pluto TV, which is also owned by Paramount, as another option. The good news is that Pluto TV is free! But there’s a catch: Like Prime Video, Pluto only has the first episode. But instead of asking me to sign up for more, it immediately throws me into a live feed of a completely unrelated comedy stream.
It’s easy to point fingers and blame Google, Amazon or Paramount for this mess. But the problem is not unique to one show, app or even smart TV platform.
- Google TV recommends watching “Better Call Saul,” a Netflix show, on Prime Video, which I can't do until I buy the show on my computer.
- Prime Video, meanwhile, recommends I watch a bunch of movies that I can’t access through its app without getting out my phone or PC first.
- The Apple TV app lists “Arrested Development,” another Netflix show, but — you guessed it — I have to buy it on my phone or PC to watch it, even though I am a Netflix subscriber.
- Fire TV is better at getting me to actually watch shows, but only if I subscribe to a bunch of add-ons through the Prime Video Channel store. The smart TV platform also peddles paid fare from Starz, BritBox and a subscription service called “The Great Courses” on its home page, all of which are designed to lure me into monthly subscriptions.
- Subscription services love Amazon’s channel store, and similar services from Roku and others, as they have been sending massive audiences their way.
- Consumers, however, often inadvertently subscribe to these channels. This appears to happen so frequently that there’s now a whole genre of SEO-friendly articles explaining how to cancel specific add-on channels.
Then there’s the watch list problem. Meant to help you remember your content choices, watch lists have effectively become another fragmented mess.
- I have a watch list on Netflix, a Prime Video watch list and one each for Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu and HBO Max.
- My Fire TV stick also has a watch list, which aggregates titles from other services, but it doesn’t know whether I have already added titles to other watch lists, or whether I have watched something on the Google TV in my living room.
- That TV has its own Google TV watch list, which again aggregates results across services — only I can’t add any Netflix titles to it due to a dispute between the two companies.
- Plex tries to solve some of this with its own aggregation watch list. However, that list doesn’t know if I watch any titles outside of Plex, forcing me to manually manage it.
- It’s like having six browsers, each with its own set of bookmarks, and you never know where you saved the thing you are looking for.
There are solutions for all of these issues. Smart TVs could, for instance, allow people to pick their default watch list providers, and then enable any installed app to update those lists, much like you can pick your default search engine, email app or web browser.
- Apps could also decide to not surface content you can’t buy without resorting to another device.
- Streaming services and smart TV platforms could work together to improve search, discovery and watch lists.
There’s only one problem: For content first to really work, all of the companies involved — smart TV platform providers, streaming services and aggregators — have to put their business interests second and actually work together. Unfortunately, that’s as likely to happen as Tim Cook correctly predicting the future of TV all the way back in 2015.
— Janko Roettgers
Note: Protocol is owned by Axel Springer, whose chairman and chief executive officer, Mathias Döpfner, is on the board of Netflix.
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TGIF: How to spend your weekend
“The Rehearsal” — HBO: Nothing can quite prepare you for “The Rehearsal,” comedian Nathan Fielder’s follow-up to his Comedy Central series “Nathan For You.” While it follows the same broad strokes of what Fielder fans have taken to calling reality comedy in the vein of Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Rehearsal” reaches unprecedented, profound heights by asking difficult questions about social anxiety and the lengths to which humans will go to avoid feeling emotional pain. It is equal parts deranged dark comedy and alarmingly cathartic reality TV with a dash of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.”
The show, which aired its pilot last week, is not for everybody; like his past work, cringe-sensitive viewers may find themselves literally sick to their stomachs by Fielder’s willingness to push situations to the extreme. But “The Rehearsal” is worth the discomfort for the sheer range of emotions it will yank out of you before you’ve even recognized the magic trick it’s pulling off before your eyes.
“The Bear” — Hulu/FX: In case “The Rehearsal” wasn’t stressful enough, Christopher Storer’s drama “The Bear” will shave a year or two off your life. The dramedy about a struggling sandwich shop in Chicago newly helmed by a former professional chef can be so intense in its camera work, lightning-fast dialogue and realistic portrayal of toxic restaurant work environments that real-life chefs have admitted to not making it through a single episode because of how close it hits to home. But the eight-part series, now renewed for a second season, is so fresh, raw and well-acted that it is impossible not to recommend — it’s no wonder “The Bear” currently holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just prepare your heart rate in advance.
The Quarry — PlayStation, Xbox & PC: British studio Supermassive Games’ latest release is a fantastic entry in the complicated and often messy market for games that are more like interactive movies. Like its past title Until Dawn and many of the Hollywood-aspiring releases from developers like Quantic Dream, The Quarry’s interactivity mostly centers on making pivotal choices about the fate of its characters.
But the freedom it gives you, and its schlocky B-movie horror influences, make it a perfect game for people who don’t play a lot of games, with plenty to love if you’re a fan of slasher flicks and monster movies. With its twisting narrative and strong replayability to unlock different endings and uncover more secrets, The Quarry succeeds as arguably the best version yet of this particular take on video game narrative.
Fake Accounts Fueled the ‘Snyder Cut’ Online Army — Rolling Stone: Remember #releasethesnydercut? The social media movement that led Warner Bros. to release a second “Justice League” version on HBO Max was unprecedented — and likely driven by bots tied to a now-defunct Los Angeles ad agency, according to an internal investigation conducted by the studio that Rolling Stone recently got its hands on. Some of Zack Snyder’s real fans took things even further, harassing studio executives and journalists alike. The craziest part of the story, however, is Snyder’s own role in all of this, which allegedly involved taking hard drives from the studio lot and reshooting scenes in his own backyard.
Stray — PlayStation & PC: There’s not much you really need to say about Stray, a new adventure game from French developer BlueTwelve Studio and Annapurna Interactive. The main character is a cat, and anyone who's seen the trailers should know why that makes it an instant must-play for pretty much everyone. Also, it does an excellent job of moving past its premise to tell a touching and adorable narrative about resilience and survival while also featuring some beautiful environments and clever puzzles.
“Stray” keeps itself interesting through its non-human robot characters, telling the story of a ruined world while also centering its emotional journey on the “Homeward Bound”-like adventure of its titular feline. The game is available for the time being as part of Sony’s PlayStation Plus Extra/Premium subscriptions this month if you don’t feel like purchasing it outright.
— Nick Statt and Janko Roettgers
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