Not Even Apple Can Clean Up the Mess of Streaming TV
By David Pierce
What do you do when you turn the TV on? You pop the popcorn, grab the clicker... then what? Now that we get our "TV" from Netflix and Amazon through devices from Roku and Samsung -- not to mention our phones and iPads -- there's no longer an easy answer.
Here's Apple Inc.'s idea: Next time you want to watch something, no matter what or where or why, just tap on the app called "TV." That's where Apple has built a hub for all your content, no matter where it comes from or which app you use to watch it. (It'll eventually also be the home for Apple TV+, the company's original programming.) In addition to all the shows and movies you're currently watching, the TV app uses a mix of automatic personalization and editorial curation to deliver a steady stream of stuff you might want to watch.
That's the idea, anyway. In reality, Apple TV (for the purposes of this article, the app, not the box -- these overlapping names are ridiculous) falls far short of its goal. Too many important content sources simply don't exist in the Apple TV universe, and the ones that do aren't integrated closely enough. It's a very good idea, but the execution only serves to show how confusing and broken the TV landscape really is.
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Search Here, Watch Anywhere
Getting started with the TV app is easy; if you have an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV set-top box with up-to-date software, it's already on your device. You can also download the TV app for some smart TVs and set-top boxes, with more to come later this year. The first time you open it, the app asks for permission to access information from the other streaming apps you have on your phone. With only a couple of taps, the TV app can connect to Hulu, Prime Video, FX Now and whatever other apps you've got.
Next time you want to watch "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," rather than open a channel-specific app, you just open the TV app and search. Once you find your show, the TV app lists all the places you can watch it, and with one tap you can jump straight into the correct app and start playing.
Except Apple TV doesn't include Netflix, which immediately takes it out of one-stop-shop territory. It doesn't index your live TV channels or the on-demand shows from your cable provider, either. Apple will show you Amazon Prime TV shows to watch, but then it will try to sell you movies on iTunes that you already own through Amazon. The app does a decent job with news and live sports -- and can even send you notifications when a game is close and nearing the end, a feature I've come to love -- but it can't tell me when "The Bachelorette" is starting and how to tune in.
Apple TV also has no way to know which shows I'm already halfway through or have finished entirely. If you watch "Billions" through the Showtime app on your phone or Roku, Apple TV simply has no idea, and will keep recommending episodes you've already watched.
Showtime syncs my activity to its own apps on every platform, but doesn't share it with Apple. Apple only knows what I watch when I initiate things from the TV app. So unless I start every search and couch-potato session in the app, it quickly stops being useful.
How should this work? Speaker-maker Sonos is a handy analog. If, for instance, you start a song on the Sonos One speaker by asking Alexa, every other controller in the system -- the Sonos app, the Spotify or Amazon Music apps, even Google Assistant -- is instantly alerted to what you're listening to. You can start a song with one app, pause it with another and skip to the next one with a voice command.
Sonos calls this "continuity of control," and it should work the same here. I should be able to tell Siri to start a show on my Fire TV, pause it in the HGTV app, then open Apple's TV app on my Samsung TV to see exactly where I left off.
The key to unlocking the potential of Apple TV is Apple TV Channels, where you can subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Starz and more directly through Apple's app -- and watch it all inside that one app. With enough channels in the service, Apple could eventually replace your cable box.
Even here, though, the TV universe complicates matters. Let's say you wake up tomorrow and decide you want to get more of the antics of Barry and NoHo Hank in your life, so you subscribe to HBO. You have a dizzying array of options: Your cable provider, Roku, Amazon, even HBO itself will all take your money.
If you subscribe through Apple TV, you get the convenience of the TV app and the simplicity of Apple billing. Best of all, Apple lets you download shows and movies to watch offline, which no other platform allows -- not even HBO's own app. But you don't get an HBO account, which means you can't watch HBO on your TV unless you have the Apple TV box or app there, too. (And you can forget about watching HBO on a Windows PC or Android phone.) The other HBO apps, such as HBO Go, won't recognize you as a subscriber. Apple says it's planning to offer a similar service to the way you might log in with your cable provider, but that's not here yet.
After a week of testing, I've settled into using the TV app as a sort of backup plan. If I know what I want to watch, I just go to the content provider's own app and watch it there. When I'm looking for something new or searching for a movie I know is streaming but don't know where, I open the TV app and start there. If you have kids, the human-curated Kids section will be especially useful. But in general, my TV-watching experience is no less messy with Apple's addition.
We need a universal guide for streaming TV, a new way of browsing and searching and finding stuff to watch, and an easier way to find stuff to watch than endlessly scrolling through rows of tiles in dozens of apps. But not even Apple can wrangle all the streaming platforms, cable operators and set-top box makers to create a system that actually works. Without all that help, Apple TV will continue to be what it is now: a bunch of good ideas that never had a chance.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 19, 2019 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.