The cord-cutting dream has given way to a stark reality: Streaming TV is a mess. And on Tuesday, it only got messier, as DirecTV rolled out their entry into the category, DirecTV Now, launching Wednesday:
DirecTV Now holes: No DVR yet, no NFL on phone, no local station feed where ABC/NBC/Fox don’t own the station, no NFL Sunday Ticket, no CBS
Shalini Ramachandran (@shalini) November 28, 2016
Also: It’s not even available on Roku until 2017.
Again and again, we hear that the goal of tech companies is to create a product that “just works,” as Apple’s Steve Jobs might say.
And even though it’s a bit pricy, cable TV still offers that experience over streaming: You turn it on. You flip the channel. You DVR a show, or you don’t. At its most recent product launch, Apple looked to apply that thinking to its new TV app.
“The TV app shows you what to watch next and easily discover TV shows and movies from many apps in a single place,” Apple’s Eddy Cue said in a press release accompanying the launch.
“Many apps” being the key phrase there. Apple’s new TV app, which is supposed to roll all of your streaming options into one place, is somehow missing both Netflix and Amazon, two of the biggest streaming services on the planet.
Consumers right now face an inscrutable, almost Kafka-esque web of hardware, apps and service decisions that each offer slightly different packages of content at different prices, which may or may not be available on whatever device you’ve got plugged into your TV. God help you if you want to watch local broadcast channels or particular sports teams.
That is not something that “just works.”
With so many imperfect options, cable TV is somehow beginning to look like the very thing Apple’s always classically offered: A pricey, but ultimately superior product.
Streaming, on the other hand, isn’t that. It might get there eventually, and there’s good reason to expect more services, which will force companies to compete more for your money.
More services, however, won’t necessarily fix the streaming problem. If anything, the number of companies with various conflicting interests hereGoogle, Amazon, Apple, Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast/NBCUniversal, Fox, CBS, Netflix, Viacom and moreis a massive, unremovable part of the problem. Take, for example, the twisted relationship between Netflix and Apple:
Apple’s new TV app is an effort to own the entire interface used by anyone with an Apple TV streaming box. If everyone begins using that app, it starts to represent power Apple can wield against companies like Netflix. Apple could start pushing Netflix to share revenue with them, or be left out of the app, conceivably leaving Netflix out in the cold.
Which, of course, resembles the current cable situation. The vast majority of homes have a single cable provider, which owns that connection with the customer. This gives cable companies a huge amount of leverage when negotiating carrier costs with cable channels.
That kind of bottleneck doesn’t exist on the internet. As a consumer, you get to go grab whatever content you want, without your internet provider having much of a say about it (at least, for now).
Yet, despite the mess that is streaming media right now, the near future looks good for consumers. As more people cut the cord and subscribe to these services, winners and losers will emerge. The winners will have more power to negotiate with hold-outs, and simpler, more complete options will emerge, competing for consumer dollars.
The downside is it could be years before that happens. These companies are deadlocked in competition, and with streaming still in its infancy, they’re fighting hard to put themselves in advantageous positions. Amazon wants you to stream through their hardware. Apple wants you to stream through theirs. Netflix wants to be anywhere and everywhere, as long as it’s still controlling its own interface. And DirecTV wants to be… something like everything (and ended up, somehow, mostly like nothing).
For now, there are some tools out there to help you sort out the mess of streaming options into something a little more clean. JustWatch provides a much-needed cross-service interface with up-to-date listings of what is available. Reelgood is the app that Apple arguably wanted to make.
And maybe one day they’ll make it. In the meantime, streaming TV, at its best, still needs a fix. It needs viewers to do a little legwork and can be rewarding when they do. It doesn’t “just work,” unless its as a work-in-progress.