The launch of Amazon’s Fire TV earlier this month begat a new round of prognostication about over-the-top (OTT) television. Not just about whether Amazon’s new device actually represented an improvement over existing devices from the likes of Apple and Roku, but also regarding how OTT devices stack up against traditional pay TV services. For example, in response to Amazon’s emphasis on the speed of Fire TV, MG Siegler tweeted:
The thing is, the Apple TV isn’t slow. That’s not its problem. It’s a billion times better than any cable box. It just needs apps.
— MG Siegler (@parislemon) April 2, 2014
While it’s true enough that OTT devices such as Roku, AppleTV and now Fire TV offer user interfaces that are superior in many regards to traditional cable boxes, cable boxes can and increasingly will incorporate these same improvements, as evidenced by Comcast’s widely acclaimed X1 platform. And if by “apps” Siegler means AppleTV needs more content, he’s definitely correct that AppleTV, and all of the OTT devices generally, need more content−a point echoed by Benedict Evans:
You don’t change TV by providing a better user interface for marginal content. The TV experience is not centred on switching channels — Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) April 5, 2014
The latter half of Evans’ comment caught my attention, however, particularly in light of his blog post a week earlier in which he explicitly questioned whether viewers actually want the kind of completely active navigation experience that OTT devices currently offer:
This in turn points to another question, and perhaps a slightly subversive one: how do people actually want to watch ‘TV’ (or whatever we call it)? Hundreds of millions of normal people really do just come home, turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on – if you offered something less passive, do we really know how many would do it? That is, the idea that no-one would watch linear broadcast TV if on-demand worked ‘properly’ (whatever that might mean) is really just an assumption.
This is an extremely important point, which seems to have been missed entirely by many who would (and do) endeavor to “improve” the TV experience.
So I take Evans’ comment that “The TV experience is not centred on switching channels” as arguing that the TV experience is centered on the content, rather than the user interface. And I agree with that…except that the user interface matters an awful lot, to the degree it gets in the way of watching TV! This is exactly the problem we had for years with on-demand UIs on traditional cable boxes: even when the content was compelling, the interface discouraged use.
So I would phrase it a bit differently, instead observing that the TV experience is not centered on menus—no matter how aesthetically pleasing and easy to use they may be. But I’d also argue that, in a very important sense, the TV experience is precisely centered on switching channels: as in having a user experience where switching from one piece of content to another is as simple, unobtrusive and continuous as changing channels. This is what distinguishes watching TV from watching video.
And because the content, itself, is the ultimate center of the TV experience, continuity is an extremely important element of TV navigation. Persistent complaints from viewers over channel change times on digital cable boxes underscore just how sensitive many viewers are to even brief discontinuities in the audiovisual content experience. Interrupting the content to bring up menus, as all of the current OTT devices do, disturbs the core of the TV experience. This is why traditional cable boxes use squeezebacks and overlays to maintain continuity of the TV experience, even while navigating menus. (In fact, viewers are most sensitive to audio discontinuities. Even a momentary audio discontinuity is easily noticed, and annoying for many. On the other hand, if the audio is continuous, most users will easily ignore short discontinuities in video.)
None of the current OTT devices handle this problem well. All of them offer a disjointed experience when it comes to switching from one piece of content to another, and the divisions among content created by their app models exacerbate the problem.
To this point, the designers of these systems do not seem to have considered such discontinuity to be an important enough problem to address. Or likely, because of underlying assumptions they make regarding how users will navigate and consume content on these systems, they haven’t considered such to be a problem, at all.
But until OTT devices do address this problem, for many users, they will remain significantly inferior to even dumb cable boxes in an important respect, no matter how much content they eventually make available, or how beautiful and easy to use their menus may be.