In August 2011, Steve Jobs, the tech icon who disrupted a string of traditional industries, called me and told me he thought he’d figured out a way to revolutionize TV. He invited me to come see it at Apple in a few months, but he died just six weeks later and that meeting never came to pass. Not long after, in his authorized biography of Jobs, the author Walter Isaacson quoted him as saying he thought he had “cracked” the problem of TV.
More than five years have passed, and while Apple and its rivals have enabled TV viewing on a huge number of mobile devices, nobody has fully and truly revolutionized traditional TV.
A host of companies — Roku, Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and many others — have introduced alternative approaches, either to the hardware, the content, or both. Everyone reading this no doubt regularly watches TV and other video on phones, tablets, streaming set-top boxes, and PCs — and through services like Netflix and YouTube, and Facebook. Many of you — especially those under 30 — may never have been cable subscribers or no longer are.
But a huge number of households in the US — over 90 million — are still stubbornly sticking to buying big bundles of mostly unwatched networks, with shows primarily presented in linear fashion and interrupted by interstitial ads, even if they also use the newer devices and services. Their numbers are declining, but not yet collapsing. For these viewers, it might as well be 20 years ago.
At last week’s Code Media conference in Dana Point, California, the upending of traditional TV was a hot topic. I came away from the event convinced that more change is coming, but impatient that a fundamental reworking of TV looks like a slow process.
The three conference segments that impacted me the most on this topic were an interview by my Recode colleague Peter Kafka with a panel headed by Apple senior vice president Eddy Cue; a presentation by respected tech analyst Ben Thompson; and a demo of a cool new universal set-top box called Caavo.
Before I talk about what I learned at Code Media, let me explain what I mean by a “fundamental” reworking of traditional TV. I mean a total unbundling down to the level of each TV show, not the network; the ability to watch those individual shows in any combination I like, whenever or wherever I want, immediately upon their release, on any device I like; and the option to choose between paying a zero or modest fee to watch with ads or to pay a bit more and never see ads.
In other words, I want my TV shows to be served up to me the way Apple Music and Spotify serve up nearly every new and old song, ad-based (in the case of basic Spotify) or for a monthly subscription price, without requiring me to know what label recorded them, or, if I choose, even what album they were on.
As for the device we now call a TV or a cable box, I want it to be fast, with a clean interface, and seamlessly upgradeable to the latest software. I want it to be the primary source of all TV, not an ancillary device. I want the UI to ditch the grid and be show-based and interactive. I want a healthy competition among makers of these devices, which would be available at stores and tied into the other tech ecosystems in your life.
Much of this is here, but in frustrating pieces that leave the cable box with key advantages, sitting on input 1. Netflix, the most popular alternative service, is show-based and ad-free, but lacks brand-new shows other than those it makes itself. Apple TV and other Apple devices now sport a new show-based app called “TV” that aims to unify the offerings of the disparate video apps, but that app doesn’t include Netflix. You can watch some NFL games on phones, but only if you have Verizon. Some TV apps or services on streaming boxes still require you to have a cable subscription and / or to watch ads.
So, based on what I saw at Code Media, when will it get better?
Eddy Cue dropped some hints that Apple is continuing to work on remaking TV, but that it may be a slow process. “Anytime there’s change,” he said, “there’s going to be some resistance. There’s also the fact that there’s lots of parties involved and everybody doesn’t want to move in the same direction.”
Like every official from Apple I’ve seen on a stage, Cue wouldn’t get into specifics, but he did hint that Apple isn’t giving up on its widely reported efforts to create some sort of radically new TV service, even though it’s been unable to come to terms with the TV industry. As a sort of parable, he told the audience that even record labels being decimated by piracy rebuffed Apple's initial efforts to sell individual songs through iTunes. And then, when talks resumed a year later, it took eight months to complete the deals. My sources say the obstacles Apple has hit with the TV studios are far worse, partly because the business and rights issues are far more complex.
On the reinvention of TV generally, he said, “Things are already moving and progressing. It’s not like it’s at standstill. Would we like it to go faster? Of course we would.”
My read: there’s some hope of fundamental change, but not anytime soon.
Thompson, publisher of the website Stratechery, gave a compelling 15-minute talk about “the great unbundling” of various forms of media, and then their re-aggregation on the internet. He called TV the “big white whale” of this media unbundling and said that, while it will likely happen in some form, it will be slow because the current cable bundle is still fairly strong and profitable.
However, Thompson foresaw a future where Amazon and Netflix could be “giants” in most genres of TV, and cable one day may consist mainly of live sports at a stiff price.
My takeaway: again, change can happen, but slowly.
Finally, the sheer fun of a pure hack that creates the future now, or something pretty close to it. It’s a product called Caavo, co-created by the late Blake Krekorian, co-creator of the Slingbox. Caavo is a universal remote, powered by a new $400 set-top box, that is essentially a workaround to the systemic problems of reinventing TV. It physically links together everything plugged into your TV — cable boxes, streaming boxes, game consoles — and presents all their contents in one interface with both visual and voice control, down to the individual show level.
With Caavo, you don’t have to know the device name, the network name, the service name. Just which show you want to watch, regardless of whether it’s live, recorded, downloaded, or streaming. It’s cool — but it says a lot about the state of TV that the most promising near-term path to the solution is a clever hack that sits on top of everything else, not a tightly integrated new product.
Argh. This is taking way too long for my taste. If Apple, Amazon, Netflix, or somebody else can ever blast away all the ridiculous vestiges of decades-old TV content and technology we live with today, I’ll buy whatever they come up with. Until then, I’m settling for a Caavo.