I watched the recent interview that Tim Cook did with Charlie Rose, the American television talk show host and journalist, and find that for once I’m in total agreement with something that Tim Cook said.

Tim Cook interviewed by Charlie Rose

Tim Cook being interviewed by Charlie Rose. Image captured from the Hulu stream.

“TV is one of those things that… is stuck back in the 70s”.

Cook went on to elaborate on why he feels this way.

“Think about how much your life has changed, and all the things around you has changed, and yet TV, when you go in your living room to watch the TV or wherever it might be, it almost feels like you’re rewinding the clock and you’ve entered a time capsule and you’re going backwards. The interface is terrible. I mean, it’s awful. And you watch things when they come on unless you remember to record them.”

I think he’s absolutely right.

The Problem

Our lives in the 21st century largely revolve around TV. Yes, we do use mobile devices and consume a lot of social media and general worldwide web data, but we still stare at our TVs for hours and hours each week, which brings me to raise two points:

  • a lot of the content we look at on the internet is influenced by what we’ve seen on TV
  • the TV is often a far larger object in our homes than our other content devices, i.e. laptop/computer, tablet, smartphone, and it’s also the device (from that list) which has been in our homes the longest yet, it’s the device with the least options regarding content
  • just how much TV do we watch that we’re not all that interested in, and yet while we’re online we only look at content we’re interested in.

Cook is correct in pointing out that we are still beholden to a time schedule as to when we can watch something which is broadcast to all simultaneously. And for many programmes and many TV channels, once a programme has been broadcast, that’s it.

The On-Demand Option

Nowadays many of us use DVRs – Digital Video Recorders – to time a recording of this one-off broadcast so that we may watch it at our leisure. But to paraphrase a point that Cook made, think about the rest of your daily information intake: you consume what you want, when you want it. Want to watch a video on YouTube, stream it whenever’s convenient for you; want to read about sports results? Anytime after the sporting event took place, you can read about it; want to download an app? It’s always there; want to play a game on your smartphone? Play it wherever you are in the world, at any time of day.

Let’s compare the worldwide web’s anytime, anywhere model with that of the BBC. The BBC have one of the best online programme streaming services, the BBC iPlayer, which is available through web browsers and is also built into a lot TVs sold in the UK. However, the Netflix of broadcast TV the BBC iPlayer is not, and the iPlayer’s availability page enumerates the reasons why.

  • “Due to rights issues, a few of our programmes are not available on BBC iPlayer”
  • “Some programmes are only available to play on the website; they cannot be downloaded”
  • “Some programmes can take several hours to appear in BBC iPlayer”

So the BBC iPlayer falls short of being an on-demand streaming service for several reasons, and rather than being what I would consider as a modern, 21st century online media outlet, the BBC iPlayer is instead merely a click-and-hope short-term catch-up service. I say short-termbecause another point which really should be added to that availability page is that the subset of programmes available on the iPlayer are only available for a set period of around 2 – 4 weeks. This means that if you recently caught part 5 or 6 of a series and would like to see it from the start, you’re out of luck.

iplayer-would_i_lie_to_you

The BBC iPlayer. Notice (underneath the image from the TV programme) that this programme is only available for 1 week after initially broadcast. Image captured from the BBC iPlayer.

And why do I have to wait until after the broadcast before I can stream the programme online? Why can’t I choose to watch the programme on a computer or on a TV? If the BBC announce that, say, Eastenders will be broadcast at 8pm on Monday then why can’t I point a browser towards the iPlayer at the appointed time and stream said programme? Why are people watching on a TV set given preferential treatment?

Perhaps this has something to do with the way that the BBC us funded in the UK via TV licenses, but either way I feel that this model is old-fashioned and in today’s fast-paced technology and online domains, is atleast 15 years out of date.

The Equipment

A second point I’d like to make about television services in the year 2014 is just how poor a lot of DVRs are. The DVR / cable box which I use at home(a Cisco product) is, in a word, terrible. If I wish to look at the channel guide the box freezes for several seconds; even moving to the next page of channels on the guide takes a couple of seconds. In 3 years we’re now on our 5th box due to faults with the previous ones – if your laptop or phone failed that many times, wouldn’t you decide not to buy another from that manufacturer? It has some other slightly odd quirks too: for example, there’s a button on the front of the box with the universal on/off symbol, but pushing this will only turn the box off, not on. Similarly on the remote control, this button will turn the box off and another button, featuring the cable company’s logo, turns the cable box on. I can’t be the only person who thinks this is bizarre. And another thing: the clock on the front cannot be described as accurate. Why not?

ccmediarecorder

My Cisco cable TV set-top box which is, in a word, terrible. The model might only be 3 or 4 years old but in usability terms it’s 15 or 20 years behind. Image found here.

There is an upgrade option for my cable box. If I was prepared to pay a little more each month then I can have a box with several more features, such as a wi-fi-based remote control, DLNA and a wi-fi router built-in. The reason that I haven’t upgraded is because, according to a couple of forums that I’ve read for this box, the DLNA software only recognises a few select formats, the wi-fi router drops connections and has poor range and security, but worst of all is apparently the menu: the most common tasks require going through several menu options.

In the developed world in 2014, just about every human spends several hours each week using a TV, so how hard can it be to build a good quality, simple to use cable TV box?

The Future

So by and large I see two obstacles to bringing TV up-to-date: the broadcast schedule and the receiving device. Instead of hitting a button on the remote control and waiting several seconds for the broadcast schedule to appear, why can’t I choose from a list of all programmes which have been broadcast, not just in the past 30 days? The current schedule wouldn’t then matter because as soon as it hits, say 8pm, more programmes are added to the catalogue. Why is the rented box in my home not granted access to the TV channels’ catalogues? Why are TV viewers still beholden to a schedule?

I don’t imagine that a solution is just around the corner because such a solution would be required to cover not only the TV stations vastly changing the way they operate and license/commission programmes but also internet providers and hardware manufacturers. I expect that it will change over a longer period of time: I know a few people who don’t have a TV and who only watch select programmes online. These people are at the younger end of the spectrum and they realise that they can watch what they want without adhering to a TV schedule. Eventually the TV channels will realise that they’re slowly starting to lose grazing viewers, i.e. those viewers which sit and watch whatever comes on next, because of their outdated business model.

And just as we’ve seen with music, an industry which prevents evolutionary change in order to hold on to an increasingly-anachronistic business model will soon be overtaken.