Commentary

The New Cable Guy's To-Do List

I consider myself a pretty loyal person. When it comes to job, family and friends I believe a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship is the way to lead a happy and healthy existence. I try to apply this philosophy to all aspects of my life. All, that is, except one: my television/internet service provider. When it comes to this relationship I am reduced to an unfaithful, social-climbing tramp that is afraid of the word commitment. I have been through them all, or all of them that have been available' (in my area): Cablevision, Comcast, AT&T, TiVO, satellite, Verizon, etc. I am looking for The One, Mrs. Right, my soulmate -- and I am not going to stop until I find her (or it, as the case may be).

Let's be honest. We are essentially talking about a commodity product; there is really very little difference between all of the providers when it comes down to it. At this point in the evolution of television content distribution all of the providers offer HD, a robust library of on-demand programming, DVR, high speed internet and phone services. Yes, costs and packages vary and at any given moment one offering may be more enticing than another, but it all evens out in the end and they essentially offer the same service.

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So why do I jump?

Yes, I do like trying new technologies and having the Latest-Dot-0 version of whatever device I am carrying around. But it really stems from a general and nearly complete dissatisfaction with the user interface provided by the cable companies. They are, and have always been, archaic. And it has never been truer than now. We are at the peak technological innovation (though I guess that is always true) yet the interface on our televisions is more akin to the TV Guide magazine that came to my house as a kid than what we are all used to based on today's Web-driven world.

Online we have content being shared and distributed in every possible direction and it has become commonplace to see rich content just about everywhere we go. So I ask: why can't this extend to our living rooms? Why can't the interface, in short, be more Webified?

I see two areas where the user experience is greatly lacking: The first is the interface itself, typically slow and illogical. You either have to know exactly where the program you want to watch is listed or be willing to sort through pages of information to find what you want. Search functionality is weak at best and there is no hint of recommendations based on user preferences.

The second area is companion content. Television content begs for companion data to enrich the user experience. Any major category of programming would be greatly enhanced by adding a layer of information viewers can access at their discretion. A few cases in point:


Question:Red Sox game on and I want to know what Varitek is hitting this year.
Solution:Stat feed from mlb.com that shows, through real time stats, he is at .240.


Question:Is this movie "War" with Jet Li worth watching?
Solution:Content feed from Rotten Tomatoes, and no (only 14% positive) It seems pretty simple. A few data agreements here, a rev share there. Heck, throw a few ads intp the content stream and you've got yourself a business model.

The question is, why can't the cable companies raise the bar? I believe the simple answer is that they haven't been forced to yet. They have not innovated because they are more concerned with gaining subs and their churn and as a result the experience of their consumer has been the unfortunate casualty.

I urge cable companies and their brethren to embrace the technology that can do nothing but help them deliver a better product to their consumer. There are plenty of web video providers out there who are ready to pounce who have the content and the UI to make an impact so even if the direct competition is not doing it, consumers will eventually find the distribution provider that gives them everything they need.

5 comments about "The New Cable Guy's To-Do List".
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  1. Scott Doniger from Wirestone, July 15, 2009 at 4:04 p.m.

    Two possible answers: 1.most people are not like you -- they don't engage deeply enough in the UX/UI to care; 2. UI/UX is not immediately, overtly monetizable (despite your accurate assumption that revenue generating models could be built on top of new UI platforms). Many believe, however, that this will change soon and quite remarkably...let's hope so.

  2. Donald Frazier from OneVideo Technology, July 15, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.

    Yes, they are lazy -- protected monopolies in almost all of their markets.

    But it goes farther than that. These companies are locked into proprietary networks, and have given away the keys to Motorola and Scientific Atlanta. And their network engineering departments continue to drink the Koolaid.

  3. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, July 15, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.

    When I worked for the nation's biggest MSO about 15 years ago, we took a hard look at your premise. Sports stats and movie reviews are two of the most obvious examples of where an overlay would make sense, and also where there's a lot of existing investment and not a lot of evidence of pent-up consumer desire. Stats Inc has got the sports stats business sewn up, and Hollywood.com and IMDB were two of the early leaders we considered when the capability first became available.

    While pundits are always agitating for more overlays, amazingly, the majority of subscribers who think that the display on many news and sports shows are already "too cluttered". And once you get beyond the most obvious genres, it's actually pretty hard to come up with compelling, companion data around the clock. I've met a few of the web video providers you describe as being "ready to pounce" and while they have the interest, none of them truly have both the broad range of content and the UI chops that would make for a seamless transition from a browser to the full range of DOCSIS-compliant television sets in an average MSO headend.

    As far as cable experience innovation goes, I'd encourage you to check out the MSO's investment in embedding DVR capabilities at the headend -- which has been a multi-year investment and just recently culminated in a judgment favorable to the cable operator -- and consider its impact on the cable experience.

    Perhaps we'll see more of what you describe when the notion of a "real-time web" becomes more defined in the daily fabric of the public sphere, but until then, I doubt it will be a priority.

  4. Genie O'Loughlin from People's Trust, July 15, 2009 at 4:47 p.m.


    So I'm guessing you're not a big sports fan? Direct TV is making great strides to this end among the need-more-content-now types. Right now, sitting in front of my TV, I can just click the red button and find out the score of all the sporting events I'm not even tuned to. I can also see ALL the sporting events currently taking place at that moment, and just click to tune those in, assuming I want to leave my current program. Granted they still have a way to go, but at least they're starting to get it. Hopefully they will continue to push the envelop.

  5. Doug Casellini from ActiveVideo Networks, July 15, 2009 at 8:22 p.m.

    It's nice to hear the wish for TV to evolve, as expressed from a consumer viewpoint. There are a lot of Luddites out there that argue that TV should be a passive experience. I don't think these people fully understand what the future of TV could look like. It's not just the Web on TV. The key is combining the choice and control of the Web, with functionality and interfaces that make sense for TV.

    Your TV experience should be customizable in the same way that your Web experience is. If you don't want the ticker at the bottom of the screen, then you should be able to get rid of it. When people begin to understand what is possible, they say, "I want that."

    I invite you to visit our website (www.activevideo.com) to see the types of experiences that are possible today.

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