At first my wife thought there were ghosts in the house because our TV audio channel kept turning on spontaneously throughout the day. Of course, you have to understand that having ghosts in the house is actually a goal of my wife's. She is in hot pursuit of a Gothic fantasy that includes us living in a haunted cottage with generations of spiritual visitors providing dinner conversation. “Well, it's not like you talk much at the dinner table,” she reminds me. My very male take on this fantasy is that this is the kind of house that requires a torturous amount of upkeep and repairs, which I don't expect the ghosts to finance or perform.
“I kept looking to see if one of the cats was stepping on the remote control again,” she says. No -- it turns out that the cat wasn’t stepping on the remote, but I was stepping on the remote via this vast collection of Dish Network Hopper apps that I need to navigate in order to get my TV Everywhere. I have been living with the Dish setup for over a month now.
I’ve been trying to find ways to weave the ubiquitous access to my set-top box into my everyday routines. And on the face of it there is something to be said for this approach to TV Everywhere over the other app-based models that I have tried. The networks, of course, are offering access to a limited set of episodes anywhere and everywhere through their tablet and smartphone apps. HBO, of course, is opening up its entire catalog for on-demand viewing. And all of this is good, and I’ve used it extensively over the last couple of years that it has become available.
But through its acquisition of Slingbox, Dish uses apps to give the user direct access to their set-top-box experience anywhere via tablets and smartphones. This represents a shift in the dynamic, in my experience. Whereas the network approach to their apps gives you access to episodes on the network’s terms, the Dish approach feels more personalized because it is essentially porting your living room TV experience anywhere.
As the company has been advertising relentlessly in TV spots, the Hopper system allows your device apps to tap into your set-top box directly so that you can watch the same live TV stream and set of channels that you could on any of your in-home TVs. But it also gives you direct access to all of the content you have recorded on your DVR. The net effect of this model is that it extends the user sense of ownership over the media experience they believe they purchased from the MSO.
While I have only had a month to play with it, the model really does seem to invite different media consumption patterns. During last week’s bomber incident and manhunt in Boston, for instance, my iPad served as a genuine portable TV that let me hop across major news sources on a separate screen while I worked at my desktop PC. By making the full TV experience truly portable, the system turns your living room or bedroom TV experience into a true companion to just about any other experience.
But more important is the relationship to time-shifted programming. Knowing that my DVR and the full range of my TV grid cannot only be shifted to different times but also to different places and circumstances has exponentially increased my media hoarding and expanded my range of TV content consumption beyond the material that I ordinarily would be able to watch within the context of evening prime time. I now think about TV in the same way I once thought about podcasts: how do different types of content fit within the possible nooks and crannies of media consumption throughout the day?
It should be said that this model also opens up possibilities for branded content. If the windows of opportunity for media consumption are expanded to different circumstances and different modes, then the consumer can imagine circumstances where they would be willing to watch -- or even be interested in watching -- content that has no place in prime time. The fact that these systems are based in apps also provides a mechanism for overcoming one of the underappreciated problems of time-shifted programming – media that gets saved but never actually viewed.
I have seen some research showing that a high percentage of the content that people schedule for recording ultimately never gets viewed. Tablet and smartphone apps offer a level of interactivity that enables the platform to remind the user of what they have available -- and even be able to make suggestions for dealing based on time and context. No one is doing this, as far as I know, but apps make this possible when it comes to time-shifted video content.
None of this is to say that the Dish Hopper platform is really ready for prime time or other dayparts quite yet. One of the reasons my TV mysteriously goes on and off throughout the day is because my tablet app for Dish is turning on the set-top box in order to access it. If my audio amplifier is turned on, then the live TV feed starts running through my living room whether I’m there or not.
But there are other chokepoints in the system. In my experience the DVR access on my iPad app loses connection to the set-top box on a fairly regular basis. At other times the app does not really see the set-top box for reasons that are unclear. And Dish has at least three apps with overlapping functionality that just add to the confusion of which app applies to which circumstance. One app is a remote for the DVR and for live channel changing, while another accesses live and recorded TV Everywhere, and yet a third seems dedicated to downloading content from the DVR to local devices.
I am guessing that the signature Boston family of Dish lovers from the TV spots has this all figured out, but I’m not sure how the rest of us are expected to do so.
Hopper is an excellent idea that is weakest in its app execution and perhaps one or two versions away from realizing its promise. But they clearly are onto something important and it will be interesting to watch this evolve.
For now, my wife seems disappointed that the mystery surrounding the TV is explained by kludgy technology and not a spiritual presence.
“Huh, I was hoping for ghosts. We may have to move.”