Not Completely The Apple Of My Eye

For a long time I've doubted that the Internet would replace traditional over-the-air and wired television as the primary source for video content. I just didn't believe that Hulu, Netflix, YouTube or any other online service could take the place of broadcast and cable networks. My conclusions were partly based on hard evidence -- Nielsen research shows that only about 1% or 2% of all "three-screen" video is consumed over the Internet -- but, like many commentators, I mostly extrapolated from my personal anecdotal experiences.

Unlike some of the people I hang around with -- media reporters, research geeks, engineers -- I am not an early adopter. I do not have an iPad, have not signed up for Google+, and do not thrill to the pending upgrades of any of my technology products. And until now, I haven't seen any reason to connect my TV to the Internet.

Nevertheless, as a consumer I do keep an eye out for technologies that will improve my life, which is why I recently bought an Apple TV. The issue is that we are a family of rabid Red Sox fans living behind enemy lines in Yankee territory, and the baseball games we want to watch are not available on standard TV. We are longtime subscribers to MLB.TV (at $25/month) and have followed the games online -- but it's just so painful to sit in the living room watching a baseball game on a laptop when there's a nice big HDTV in the same room.

I knew there were various solutions to this problem, but was unwilling to spend the money to upgrade my existing Blue-Ray player to an Internet-enabled one. Nor, with a teenage boy in the house, did I want to introduce an X-Box into the living room just to access the Internet. However, I was willing to try an Apple TV.

Like most Apple products, the genius of the Apple TV is its simplicity and ease of use. Plus it only costs $100, which seems reasonable for a purely indulgent purchase. The device itself is small -- not much bigger than a pack of cards -- and simple to install. All you need to do is plug a power cord into the wall, connect an HDMI cable to the TV, and hook up the Internet (either WiFi or wired.) The navigation is intuitive and the HD quality is good. When I tune to MLB.TV, it's almost like watching baseball on regular TV (without the commercials.)

As an added benefit, Apple TV also provides easy access to Netflix, so I was able to investigate what the Netflix craze is all about. But after having the Apple TV for about a month, I wonder if I'm missing something. I don't understand why anyone thinks Netflix could compete with regular TV.

The problem isn't the quality of the viewing experience -- which is high -- but with the content. There's much less streamable Netflix programming than I had assumed. There are a handful of movies I plan to stream - eventually, at some point. I am delighted to see that the full library of "Saturday Night Live" and "The Office" seasons are now easily accessible. And my son is catching up with all the "South Park" seasons he was forbidden to watch growing up. But I find that my Netflix viewing is limited to times when there is absolutely nothing else to watch on TV. In the long run, Netflix may challenge the traditional syndication model, because it is fundamentally a new way of syndicating content, but viewers will first have to be trained to proactively look for the programs they want, rather than just turning on the TV to see what's there.

So the bottom line is that Apple TV is great for making Red Sox games available on our living room TV. That was $100 well-spent. And by making Netflix easily available, it has created an emergency back-up option for periods when I'm craving a particular rerun. But would I cut the cord and cancel my cable now that I have Applet TV? No way. And even if Apple TV offered Hulu Plus (which for some surprising reason it doesn't) I don't think I would actually cancel cable and give up live television, sports, "Mad Men" and the other networks that are currently unavailable on Hulu.

What my experience with Apple TV has made obvious is that there are no real technology obstacles to making Internet TV ubiquitous. It's clearly possible to create a simple elegant device to stream content to an HDTV.

The real obstacle is the reluctance of content providers to turn over their programming to services that would undermine their remarkably successful ad-supported business models. Duh! And really, why should they? Creating content is not free - why should content creators give it away for free?

The notion that the Internet will fundamentally change the way we watch television seems more and more like a pipe dream as we come face to face with the economic realities of licensing content. With its new pricing plan, Netflix streaming is now going to cost $7.99 for a lot of movies and TV shows I don't really need. What will the price be when they have more movies and TV shows? Maybe a lot closer to my current cable bill? Hmmm...

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1 comment about "Not Completely The Apple Of My Eye ".
  1. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost , July 20, 2011 at 5:01 p.m.

    For those of us old enough to remember computers with one-color screens, the idea that you streamed any kind of video at all to your TV through the Internet (the what?) is an amazing leap in itself. Tech is constantly changing. Sure, right now it seems bumpy to you. But you're in the middle of a huge still nascent transition and transformation. You chose iTunes and Netflix. Think of Hulu vs. Netflix as Time Warner vs. Comcast. The day is coming when you just choose a channel for live Tv through your Internet enabled TV and after a moment of buffering, as Apple used to say, it just works.