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Over the top: the new war for TV is just beginning

ecosystems lead

Over the top. It is a strange phrase with many meanings, the most common of which is that something is excessive: This party is over the top, you might say. A 1980s Stallone movie about arm wrestling turned it into a power play, an expression of dominance: He went over the top! And at its root, the phrase comes from World War I, when soldiers leaping out of trenches to charge the enemy directly were said to be going over the top, almost certainly to their doom. They were crazy. Over the top.

So it’s fitting that the tech industry has chosen over the top as its preferred term for delivering video content to your TV over the internet. What Apple and Microsoft and Amazon and everyone literally mean is that they’re going over the top of traditional cable television by using broadband internet, but their strategies and relative success span the entire rich history of the term, from excessive indulgence to raw power grab to insane gonzo suicide mission.

Your living room is a battlefield that’s killed every would-be conqueror for the past 50 years, and it’s driving the tech industry insane. Over the top.

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Why can’t anyone solve the living room puzzle? How is it that you can get a dazzling new smartphone every year with an ever-growing list of features, a better display, and faster networking, but the experience of watching television in your living room remains almost exactly the same as it was five years ago? Why are TV and cable box interfaces so slow and ugly, and why are we still dealing with gigantic ugly cable box remotes festooned with colored buttons?

The answer is simple: the only killer app for TV is TV itself. Granted an almost exclusive monopoly over the most valuable content in the living room, cable and satellite companies have developed their products in a competitive vacuum, insulated from the pace and intensity of innovation that has transformed every other part of the tech industry. Smartphones and tablets might have evolved into the apex predators of the technology jungle, but the cable DVR is the mutant fish at the bottom of the ocean that breathes sulfur instead of oxygen.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the dawn of the HDTV era, the FCC ordered the cable industry to let anyone build a cable box that connected to their networks by inserting something called a CableCard. In a bright and shiny future that never came, we were all supposed to shop for cable boxes the same way we shop for phones. Standardizing the access layer was supposed to enable an explosion of innovation on the device and service layer, just as it did with the internet, Wi-Fi, and GSM.

But that didn’t happen — the cable industry killed the idea by making every part of the CableCard process a complex disaster. Building compatible devices is expensive and challenging, certifying them is a political nightmare, and the consumer experience of requesting and installing a CableCard remains a special kind of hell. Few companies took the risk of entering the market against those odds, and the core TV experience has been at a virtual standstill ever since.

But a funny thing happens to institutions that refuse to work with innovators: the innovators find ways to work without them.

There is a nation of potential cord cutters looking for an excuse to stop paying Comcast for 500 channels they don't really want

Barred from integrating television service directly into their products, companies across the tech industry have spent enormous resources building rich ecosystems of video content delivered over the internet instead. The goal is obvious but generally left unstated: to provide content offerings rich and varied enough to replace cable TV. Who needs cable if the Apple TV offers all your favorite shows instead? Why pay for premium channels when you can rent movies on demand from your Xbox 360? Why bother with overpriced cable channel packages when you can watch every MLB, NBA, and NFL game directly on your PS3? There is a nation of potential cord cutters out there looking for an excuse to stop paying Comcast for 500 channels they don't really want.

The future isn't here yet, of course. Verge staffers spent the past few weeks trying to live exclusively in various media ecosystems, and everyone found holes and frustrating omissions that inevitably returned them to television. But it was only ever content that brought them back — a favorite show gone missing, or the inability to watch live sports. It was never the desire to use a cable box again — no one really wants to use a cable box again. Offer the right content on a device with a superior user experience and there's no turning back.

There's no reason your TV shouldn't be smart enough to be playing your favorite shows and events when you turn it on

So what is the right content? It's a different mix for everyone, but the basic ingredients are simple: a mix of live event-based television, on-demand movies and shows, and — crucially — compelling content that is simply playing when you first flip on the TV. That's the essence of television, after all: sometimes you just watch TV. The purest TV experiences are defined by an absence of decision that offers the illusion of control: you might have picked which network you watched election night on, but they all showed the Obama and Romney speeches at the same time from the same camera angles. You might have seen The Breakfast Club 100 times, but it's better than anything else on, so you're up to 101. Even with commercials and the swear words dubbed over.

And you might tell yourself you chose to watch an 8-hour Real World marathon, but in your heart you know it was inevitable.

Almost every major ecosystem has a solid mix of on-demand content and at least some ability to stream live events, but none of them have really nailed the serendipity of just turning on the TV and finding something good. Using an Apple TV or an Xbox 360 is an endless exercise in decision making that feels like you're constantly gambling with your time: if you'd just flipped on HBO you would have been 50 minutes into Transformers 2 by now, but instead you've watched 15 movie trailers, your wife hates you, and it's almost midnight. But whatever, let's watch the trailer for The Descendents again.

The final moments in the battle to replace the cable box will be easy to recognize — it's when you can simply flip on an Apple TV or a PS3 or a Roku box and it's already playing something. It's when the streaming services start making choices for you — choices that up until now have been made by network executives acting on a hunch and a prayer. Netflix’s recommendation engine is great at showing things you might want to start watching, but imagine if Netflix was just already playing your own personal Mad Men marathon when you flipped on the TV. Or if your Xbox was smart enough to know that you'd be watching the Nets game if you only knew it was on. If Chrome and Safari are smart enough to display your most-visited sites on the web when you open up a new tab — there's no reason your TV shouldn't be smart enough to be playing your favorite shows and events when you turn it on.

The TV industry isn't blind to what's going on, of course. No rational business person would believe that it's a good idea to maintain mountains of aging Motorola and Cisco cable boxes with slowly-failing hard drives when it's simpler and cheaper to move delivery into the cloud. It's hard (but fun) to imagine Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sitting at home with his company's clunky, garish remote in hand and thinking that he's safe from Apple's inevitable challenge. And it's easy to believe the TV executives who say they want to sell higher-priced ads better targeted at their audiences — the same way Google and Facebook sell ads now.

And the raw economics of internet delivery favors the cable companies as well. Internet service is much cheaper to offer than TV, so having customers shift the balance of their bills to data instead of TV is pure profit for the industry. Comcast caps customers at 300GB a month on most plans and is experimenting with overage charges and tiered pricing in various cities, which is basically a setup for a future of internet-delivered television — it costs Comcast virtually nothing if you use more data because you're watching video, so the overage charges are essentially easy money.

That’s not to say the cable industry will rush to turn itself into dumb pipes. TV service is a halo product that allows these companies to maintain a deep and valuable relationship with consumers, and there’s a lot of money in on-demand and pay-per-view content, which most people still buy on a cable box. But it makes far more sense to deliver everything over the internet — and deliver it to a variety of different kinds of devices, not just cable boxes. It’s already happening in a small way with the industry’s various TV Everywhere services, which are a small, controversial, and ultimately important step towards the future of television.

TV Everywhere isn’t really a brand name or a specific product: it’s the umbrella term the cable industry uses to describe pretty much any streaming service it offers. Every company has vastly different services and capabilities — some only work on your home Wi-Fi, some allow streaming on cellular networks, some have all your channels, some just have a few — but no matter what, they’re only available to customers who are already paying for traditional TV service. This restriction is extremely controversial: consumer watchdog groups like Free Press have long accused the industry of colluding to stifle competition and artificially maintain geographical monopolies while distributing services on the internet. Time Warner Cable customers in New York can’t subscribe to the Comcast TV Everywhere services available to Chicago residents, for example — they’re stuck with TWC’s service, even though it’s all delivered over the internet. HBO Go is a terrific TV Everywhere service that you can’t pay for directly; it’s only available if you pay for cable and subscribe to traditional HBO. That stands in stark contrast to pretty much every other internet service: Netflix and Hulu have to compete head-to-head, as do YouTube and Vimeo. But TV Everywhere as it exists today is insulated from that competition — it’s just a part of your cable service you probably don’t know much about.

Basically: shut up, it’s free

For their part, the cable companies have generally scoffed at criticism that they’re stifling the nascent market for internet TV services — in 2010 National Cable and Telecommunications CEO Kyle McSlarrow wrote that Free Press had it "exactly backwards," and that TV Everywhere is "an effort to ensure more content than ever is distributed over the internet at no extra charge to consumers." Basically: shut up, it’s free.

Two years later, the industry’s insistence on treating streaming TV as a free add-on to geographically limited service instead of an independent product available everywhere hasn’t worked out so well. Last month AdAge reported that TV providers aren’t even advertising TV Everywhere services to their own customers, preferring to spend their marketing money on other paid services that actually generate revenue. Most damningly, the article cited Parks Associates survey data showing that just 12 percent of Time Warner Cable customers even know they can stream their TV services over the internet. Comcast and Cablevision hit a still-dismal 24 percent. The best? AT&T at 26 percent. Averaged across the industry, only 10 percent of customers are using TV Everywhere services, and 80 percent of people don’t even know about them.

But eventually this logjam will break — it has to. Eventually HBO will wake up and realize it needs an icon on the Apple TV homescreen next to Hulu and Netflix because otherwise people will simply pirate Game of Thrones. Eventually Comcast will notice that it’s been consistently losing cable subscribers since 2007 and limiting its market to the places where it has wires in the ground isn’t going to reverse that trend. Eventually someone at Cox will point out that they have 4.6 million cable box subscribers but there are 40 million Xbox 360s connected to the internet. And unless these companies figure it out soon, the rival ecosystems being built by Apple and Microsoft and Google and Amazon and everyone else will eventually just eat their lunch.

Eventually, we’re going to get our TV over the internet.

Once the way we deliver television changes, everything else changes as well

Once the way we deliver television changes, everything else about the television experience will change as well. Cable box interfaces have stagnated on the grid guide and D-pad remote for years, but flip over to input two and you'll find endless interface experimentation going on: you can navigate an Xbox 360 using voice and gestures with a Kinect, the Apple TV works best when controlled by an iPhone or iPad, Google TV remotes have keyboards and trackpads, and Netflix builds custom apps for everything. If input one on your television is the unquestionably settled domain of the cable and satellite interface, then input two is the Wild West.

This huge amount of interface disparity isn't necessarily a good thing, or even sustainable — you can't functionally replace the single unified cable box UI with five different interfaces that access different content. But the experimentation reveals a basic truth: we still don’t know what the ideal 10-foot user experience looks and feels like. We spend hours obsessing over smartphone and tablet and laptop design, the personal technology objects we use most. But we’ve spent virtually zero time thinking about the design of shared devices — the objects and experiences that shape some of our most important moments.

Finding new and better ways of interacting with technology in these moments will result in an entirely new wave of innovation as established companies and startups alike race to rethink the living room. But it can only happen if we break free of the cable box — if we allow television to live alongside streaming video, music, games, and more in a single interface.

If we go over the top.



Photography by Jerome Cha

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Check back later today for a report on smart TVs — and tune in all week for the rest. Scroll through the guide for a sampling:

Reports

Interviews

The Verge
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