New Set-Top Boxes Just Don't Care What's On TV

 An interesting essay from The Diffusion Group’s Joel Espelien the other day makes the assertion--I don’t know how bold—that the emergence of Google’s new Android TV set-top “marks the end of the ‘hobby’ stage of TV-as-an-app, and the beginning of mass-market consumer deployment.”

It seems we see a lot of perceived ends and beginnings kicked around in this business.

Even Espelien does it at the beginning of his piece, quoting Winston Churchill from 1942 after a turning point in the war, proclaiming, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” (Very Donald Rumsfeldian!)  

But Espelien’s report for TDG, worth reading, makes a great point about over-the-top devices generally. 



As they get better and more necessary-- and Android TV seems to be a step in that direction—they make the cable TV set-top kind of an infrequently used household staple.

“I believe consumers are going to move their video consumption away from these boxes in droves, leaving them (and the plastic remotes that go with them) plugged in and turned on, but increasingly gathering dust beneath the living room TV,” he writes.

He notes that the new big four of entertainment/media—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Google –“now offer essentially the same vision: a consumer-driven interface based on a combination of personal content recommendations (i.e., particular shows or movies) and TV apps.”

Espelien’s take is that technologies compete until they cave in to the best ideas—that’s how we are arriving at touch screens and apps. (And probably, he’d say, the devolution of the personal computer got down to the mobile phone.)

The consumer-driven box makers acknowledge that there is stuff on more or less conventional TV. They just aren’t particularly interested.  

“On the one hand, Android TV poses no threat whatsoever to pay-TV and can play nicely with the existing ‘TV Everywhere’ ecosystem,” he writes. “On the other hand, the new user experience renders current pay-TV services pretty much irrelevant. The longer term impact this will have on consumer perceptions of pay-TV features, bundles, and value is uncertain; but it is potentially enormous.”

That observation puts a keen perspective on the comments of Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, who in a speech the other day extolled the exciting potential of video on demand, while also saying, almost in verbal parentheses, that it’s something that’s not being exploited properly by cable operators.

 “The beauty of on-demand is you have everything. The problem you have is, ‘It’s too much. How do I get to it?’ That becomes the next piece for such a valuable set of rights and good programming. The big part of it is it’s been paid for, it’s available. The small part is that it’s not been made easy to use,” he said, according to Variety, which co-sponsored his appearance.

It’s the “small part” that Comcast’s Xfinity X1 system is trying to address, but as Espelien notes, the personalization of the OTT set-top boxes can make whatever cable does seem too little, too late, and probably for too much money.

Even Bewkes seemed to acknowledge that Time Warner’s HBO could do quite nicely away from cable because with HBO Go and its own on-demand cable sprig, it’s already in the game.

Crediting Netflix for its clean interface to consumers, Capital New York’s Alex Weprin reported that Bewkes noted the Netflix business model is based on HBO’s, but basically, without the mess and affiliate fees HBO hacks through on a cable platform.   

"What we have to figure out in the long run is, how is this going to work?," Bewkes said. "That becomes an interesting question for companies like HBO, who could deliver their signal exactly the same way" as Netflix.

Indeed. Maybe that’s why they call it HBO…Go.

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