Throwback #5: Consilience

My first-ever book review for CNN.com and this is what I drew from the options I had. It was not assigned to me, I chose it. It looked interesting, so I dove in head first. Some notes on this one: I received a prepublication copy of the book to review, Edward O. Wilson has a couple of Pulitzers to his name, a National Medal of Science, and this book was on the New York Times Best Seller list when it was published (helped no doubt by the write-up in Newsweek).

If you want to know how I really felt about this one, skip to the last paragraph. If you’d like a more academic review of the book, check out H. Allen Orr’s write-up for Boston Review (a shining example of what you can accomplish with a high word limit).

One more thing – someone was kind enough (or foolish enough) to add a link to my review to the Wikipedia page for this book. I did not do it, but I thank the person who did. Now I have to scour the web for other references to me.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Throwback #4: Extinction

An interview I did with the writer/photographer Rosamond Purcell for CNN.com in August 1999. Unfortunately a lot of the interview was cut and the editor focused on the description of the book to support the photo gallery – their choice, not mine, but that’s what editors are supposed to do, make choices. This interview was in the top ten on CNN.com (for page views) for several days, largely due to the photo gallery. I’d say the editor made the right choice.

NOTE: The link to the photo gallery no longer functions, but her book is still available in paperback on Amazon.com.

“Swift as a Shadow: Extinct and Endangered Animals.”

The Future of Media Consumption, Part 3

Streaming Media – it’s time to get personal.

Before I dive into this topic, I feel the need to define a few basic terms, at least in terms of how I use them. In the streaming ecosystem, there are streaming services, streaming devices, and streaming apps. This is in addition to all the bits and pieces that enable those services, devices and apps. For purposes of this installment, I’m focusing on the end points in the ecosystem, not the infrastructure – infrastructure is an important topic I’ll get to in a later post. For now, I want to stay focused on the consumer experience.

Netflix, Disney+, Hulu (and Hulu + Live), YouTube TV are examples of streaming services. They can exist on devices, like smart TVs, Roku boxes, Apple TV and other connected or smart devices (like your phone). You can have these pretty much anywhere and everywhere. There is no Netflix device, Disney device, or Hulu device. These services can be SVOD (subscription VOD), AVOD (ad-supported), or some blending of the two.

For me, streaming devices are those that are dedicated to the delivery of streaming services to consumers. This excludes multi-purpose devices, like mobile phones, computers, and tablets. Think Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Roku, in no particular order.

Xbox, PlayStation, and Nvidia Shield TV are interesting players in this game as well, but only Nvidia Shield TV puts streaming front and center as it’s primary purpose, which is probably why, of these three, only Nvidia made it into both cnet’s “Best streaming device of 2020” list and PC Magazines The Best Media Streaming Devices for 2020.

And we can add into this mix devices like Xfinity Flex and the relatively new TiVo Stream 4k. More on these two later.

Which brings us to apps – applications you install on your devices to give you access to one or more streaming services or content providers. I differentiate content providers from services by their content source and availability. TBS, for example, has an app you can install on your Apple TV, but you can’t watch the content unless you have a paid TV subscription (like YouTube TV or Comcast cable), so while this is an app, it is not a stand-alone streaming service, or aggregation of services, so I’m excluding it and apps like it from this discussion. 

That all seems straightforward, until you start talking about apps like HBO Go, or services like Apple TV+, primarily because these brands have decided to try to confuse the hell out of viewers. 

I have an Apple TV, and on it there’s an app called Apple TV+, and within that app there are other apps, like “Movies” and “Music” (spawned by iTunes) that enable the purchase or rental of content, as well as original content from Apple, which makes Apple TV+ a streaming service that you can access on other devices, like Amazon Fire TV. But don’t try to rent a movie from the Apple TV+ app on Fire TV – you have to make your purchase through an Apple device, like you phone, in order for it to show up in your library. Unless you’re using Apple TV. 

With me so far? 

Here’s my pointthe streaming space is crowded and confusing, and getting worse. The user experience, in fact, the entire device, app, and service eco-system, is in dire need of clarity and simplicity. 

Let’s look at a recent example of my own TV viewing. 

We’ve been binge watching Suits. Don’t ask me why, just try not to judge. Binge watching nine years of anything is a bad idea, take my word for it.

Binge watching Suits, via Amazon Prime Video, on an Amazon Fire TV 4k stick. One Saturday evening we finished Season 8, and the next day we wanted to start Season 9. To be clear, I knew Season 9 was the last season, but I did not know it just ended in 2019. 

Which is why I was surprised to find it was unavailable to me, unless I purchased it, in Amazon Prime Video or another pay VOD service. What? I have to pay for this to watch in Amazon Prime Video? I didn’t have to pay for it for the first 8 seasons because I’m a Prime subscriber. Now what? 

YouTube TV to the rescue! Back out of the Prime Video app, open the YouTube TV app, scroll through the live channels, click on the USA Network logo, and, like magic, there’s a menu item right there, just for Suits. Click that and you have arrived at your destination – Suits Season 9, free for the watching. 

Free, if you don’t count the ads. Your cost to watch the last season this way is to watch ads. Surprisingly, there weren’t very many! This great! 

Unfortunately, the same ad with the same music played in every break – one ad, over and over again. It was almost soul-crushing. I know the bills have to be paid, but this was rough. This issue – dynamic ad insertion and ad frequency – is a topic that deserves its own article.

Let’s look at another example from my recent experience – HBO Max. 

HBO Max is not available as a stand-alone app on Fire TV. When I was a Hulu + Live subscriber, I also subscribed HBO, which gave me access to HBO Go, plus HBO’s linear channels within Hulu + Live. 

When I switched to YouTube TV, I purchased HBO Now as a stand-alone app, which meant I no longer had HBO linear channels. When HBO Max launched, it became available as an add-on to my YouTube TV subscription, for the same price I was paying for HBO Now. Awesome! 

I cancelled HBO Now, added HBO Max to my YouTube TV subscription, and the entire Warner Media universe became available to me, instantly. Content from TCM, TBS, TNT, HBO, Warner Brothers –  a smorgasbord of media! And it integrated seamlessly with my YouTube TV subscription on my Amazon Fire TV. 

Yeah, that’s a lot. And as of July 31, all of that will change. HBO Go goes away, HBO Now becomes just plain old HBO. At least there’s movement toward simplicity.

It took me ten minutes to find “Cowboys and Aliens.” (Don’t knock it ’til you’ve watched it!)

HBO Max, when displaying content for on demand viewing, sorts titles by “relevance” – which makes is near impossible to find anything quickly. Who decided to make this the default sort order, and how they determine “relevance” is a complete mystery to me.

Where’s my content? How do I find it? What should I watch? How should I watch it? 

The problem is “findability.” 

Peter Morville, in the preface to “Ambient Findability,” talks about the massive amount of content floating around in the world and makes the point about his own book that “Most folks are more likely to win the lottery than find this book.”

The same is true for movies and TV shows. Do you decide what to watch, then go look for it, or do you go looking for something to watch, with a vague idea of what you want? Action-Adventure tonight, or romantic comedy? Movie night, or find a series to start binging? How about a nice documentary?

Either way, unless you know where to look, you could spend precious time looking, and less time watching. Start early! 

Recommendations, on some streaming services, are actually pretty good – sometimes. But these are based on factors like viewing habits and viewer profiles. They can’t account for the current “state of mind” of a viewer, and the viewer has no way to communicate this to the recommendation engine. And these engines tend to exist within an app or service, with no interconnection between a viewer’s (potentially) multiple apps, channels and subscriptions. 

The Apple TV app (not to be confused with Apple TV+) on the Apple TV device attempts to solve part of the findability problem, but falls short in that it can’t tell me if the content it’s presenting to me is actually available to me, or if I will need yet another subscription or app to watch it. Also, it has never made a solid recommendation that I’ve noticed, and it doesn’t add enough value for me to rely on it for anything meaningful. 

Both the Xfinity Flex and TiVo Stream 4k claim to aggregate content in such a way as to make it more easily searchable, across all the services on the device. Sounds great! Too bad I can’t get all my services on these devices. I get it – why would TiVo or Xfinity allow me to install YouTube TV or Hulu + Live on their devices when what they really want me to do is switch to Sling or Peacock, or, in the case of Xfinity, subscribe to cable TV?

No matter how good a device is at findability, clarity and simplicity, it’s useless to me without the services I want.

Chance also plays an important role in “findability,” at least for my household. Paramount’s excellent series “Yellowstone” had its Season 3 premiere last night, June 21. I do not have this channel on YouTube TV, so I planned to purchase the season. Low and behold, while looking for Season 6 of “Schitt’s Creek” I discovered “Yellowstone” in the live channel schedule. I just added the show to my library – problem solved. Imagine an AI trying to make sense of my viewing habits, just based on the shows, networks, and services I’ve mentioned in this article! I know it won’t be easy.

Wouldn’t it be great – and make lots of sense – if I could interact with the streaming ecosystem in my home in a way that improved both findability AND recommendations? 

My Amazon Fire TV could have awareness of my apps and subscriptions, I could provide some profile information – as much or little as I’m comfortable with – and when I wanted to watch something, I could provide basic “state of mind” data. 

It could look something like this – I have YouTubeTV, with HBO Max, as well as Netflix, CBS All Access and Prime Video. I tell my Fire TV I’m in the mood for a sci-fi comedy-action movie and the Fire TV could recommend movies like “Galaxy Quest,” “Men in Black,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And because I have a history of watching classics and zombie movies, the list will include “Zombieland,” “Night of the Comet,” “Back to the Future,” and “Young Frankenstein.” 

And this list will not only tell me which of my services has each film, it will tell me if, and how much, it will cost me to watch them. Even better, all I have to do is select the one I want and it plays – no more bouncing through menus to get to the content, it all just happens on the back-end. 

How nice would that be?

Here’s the dark cloud hanging over all of this – this situation does not bode well for content creators. 

New shows or films are easily lost in the flood of content washing over the internet, cable TV, and, of course, streaming services. 

Poor findability, high complexity, massive volume, and the sheer cost of creating quality content – all of these combine to raise the level of risk for content creators. Is it any wonder, then, that studios tend toward known entities when choosing what to produce?  Existing franchises, content created from popular books, or even remakes of former hits, all have a better chance of making it to the screen – and getting the marketing budget to draw an audience – than new, original titles. 

I’m certain there are great TV shows and movies I’ll never hear about simply because there is so much content in so many places. I have spent more time looking for something to watch then it takes to actually watch it. Hasn’t everyone?

Which is why I’m just as likely to put on “Big Bang Theory” or “North Woods Law” until I figure out what else to watch. Easy to find, costs me nothing, and fits my general TV-watching needs (to be entertained and/or informed, or both). This. is my version of the two-screen experience: put the TV on… something…, then surf through ll my services on a tablet until I figure out what I want to watch.

So, conclusions:

The streaming media ecosystem is a mess. 

The playing field is crowded with services, devices and content.

Findability is a major problem.

Content creators have serious headwinds.

Some ideas:

Robust interoperability between services, devices and applications. Would an industry standard API help?

Improve the search and recommendation processes. Not only the processes, but the way they are triggered and the functionality of the results. Give me the ability to interact with these processes in real-time in a meaningful way, and give me results that are actionable. But is the metadata good enough for this? I don’t think so, which is both a problem and an opportunity. 

Make apps and services more social. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched a show or movie just because someone recommended it to me. Make that simpler, even integrated, and new content might have an easier time finding an audience. 

Predictions:

Some streaming services will not survive. PlayStation Vue will not be the last to shutter. This is an easy prediction because consolidation is already happening. Both StreamingMedia.com and IBC.org have excellent reporting on the challenges the industry is facing.

Along these same lines, content providers and streaming services, like Apple, Netflix and Warner Media, will eventually get their act together and declutter the eco-system. But not until consumers give them a push in the right direction. 

The findability problem will be solved, but will it be solved across services and devices, or will it be piecemeal, on a per-service basis? I think the latter, because there’s no incentive for cooperation – yet. 

I believe there’s money to be made here if a solution can be found that works across the eco-system. But without a cooperative effort, or at least an open API or common standard, it’s an uphill battle, at best.