With TV, Tech isn’t the Problem

Along with much of the Tech.pinions team, I’m at CES this week and, as usual, TVs and TV-connected devices are a big theme. Streaming video providers are also present and making announcements of various kinds. Yet I’m struck again this week, as I have been before, by the fact technology isn’t really the biggest challenge in disrupting the traditional TV and video industry. Yes, there are advances being made in technology which are improving the user experience of watching video, but it’s content rights that are still the biggest barrier to really giving consumers what they want.

Working with – and around – the current system

A lot of the TV-related technology on display at CES either works with or around the current system. An increasing number of connected TV devices are incorporating some kind of over-the-air element. I saw boxes and other hardware from Mohu, Sling, and others designed to capture OTA broadcast signals and incorporate them into a next-generation user interface. This is hardly dramatic new technology – broadcast has been around for decades – but it’s often still the easiest way for cord cutters to access sports and local content.

It’s ironic we’re falling back on older technology to supplant newer coax, fiber, and satellite-based delivery, but this is the state of the TV industry today. Some of the best options simply have to work with what they’ve got – that’s an admirable reality but it often means disjointed experiences which combine OTA signals with internet-delivered streams, multiple user interfaces, and local or cloud-based storage. The new devices on offer at CES attempt to bring some harmony to all this, including the Mohu and Sling hardware devices I mentioned. But, in many cases, these solutions merely cobble back together bundles that end up looking very similar to what they’re replacing. And of course, OTA solutions don’t work for some people at all (I have a big mountain sitting between my house and the local broadcasters, meaning I get no signal at all).

Rights remain the biggest barrier

I’ve been using AT&T’s DirecTV Now since it launched late last year and I’ve largely been enjoying it, though I’ve seen a few technical hiccups here and there. But there are several non-technical things that detract from the experience – TV Everywhere authentication as offered by traditional pay TV services is a bit lacking and commercial breaks often display a “commercial break in progress” placeholder rather than actual commercials. The latter doesn’t bother me overly much, but both of these are entirely down to rights issues. Contracts signed years ago haven’t yet been renewed, so AT&T doesn’t have the rights in some cases to do its own ad insertion or to authenticate users on this service for TV Everywhere apps.

Hulu made some news at CES because it has apparently signed CBS as part of its pay TV replacement service. The fact that a single broadcaster signing on is news is more evidence of how fragmented this whole space is and how important rights negotiations are. The reality is that, even if people balk at the high prices of traditional pay TV services, they still want a lot of the content and that means paying directly or indirectly to access it. CBS has its own digital streaming service – CBS All Access – and has been a holdout from several of the other streaming services including DirecTV Now. Hulu getting CBS on board is therefore something of a coup but we’ve yet to see what other content it has secured and what its reported $40 per month price will include.

The reality is that some of this is merely a matter of contract renegotiations and will get worked out in the coming years, while other elements are down to content owners deliberately resisting or blocking some of the changes to the traditional business models. The major traditional pay TV providers are part of this picture too, though of course Sling and DirecTV Now come from two of the biggest. Cable operators have been the slowest to embrace this change, largely because they dominate the historical market.

User interfaces and video quality can still help

Having said all that, we’re still seeing innovation around user interfaces and video quality and they are making a difference even as the rights issues get worked out. Some of the new streaming pay TV services have much better UIs than the services they’re replacing. Interactive programming guides still often make an appearance, but search, recommendations, and on-demand options make these interfaces more compelling. In addition, we’re seeing innovation around content formats like 4K and HDR, from both TV manufacturers and content providers. Here, too, the newer over-the-top services are taking the lead, with Netflix and Amazon offering some of the first mass market 4K content. But some of the pay TV providers are dabbling with 4K too, and even Samsung is now going to be selling 4K TV through its smart TVs.

A tipping point is coming

At some point in the next year or two, I predict we’ll see a tipping point when it will become apparent to everyone, including the current holdouts, that digital delivery is the future and that it’s coming far faster than many of them thought. We’re already seeing the mainstreaming of streamed pay TV services, with the DirecTV Now launch just the first of a new raft of services, to be joined by Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube in the near future. But we’re also seeing accelerated cord cutting (with the pay TV industry losing well over a million subscribers per year at this point) and many individual cable networks losing subscribers at a much faster rate due to skinnier bundles and rising rights costs. All of this, taken together, will cause a crisis in the TV industry which will finally drive it to embrace new business models and broader distribution. And then the rights side of the equation will finally catch up with the advances in TV technology.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

10 thoughts on “With TV, Tech isn’t the Problem”

  1. I’ve been using EyeTV, two HDHomeruns, and a Mac Mini for over ten years now. From there we use either Safari/Hulu or iTunes to pick up non-network shows or movies. We don’t watch sports, which seems the biggest sticking point for alternatives to cable TV. I used to be a big Atlanta Braves fan. But when it became easier for me to watch Braves games when I traveled vs when I was home IN ATLANTA, that was too absurd to even consider any more. Another licensing issue to be worked out in the digital age.


  2. iBrother is trying to cut the cord and asked for help, but I’ve bailed out because the situation is too complex, fluid, and uncertain. Content is linked to apps (Amazon’s movies will only play in the Amazon app…) which are dependent on devices (no Amazon Movies on the Apple TV, and reciprocally no iTunes on the Fire TV), plus some ISPs restrict VOD/streaming services.
    Then you ave to factor app + UI quality. Apparently for the 3 providers he wants (Apple, Amazon, and CareTV), he needs 3 different boxes… I’ll keep torrenting ;-p

    1. That’s why I went with a media PC connected to our TV. As long as it isn’t cable TV dependent, there isn’t anything I can’t watch, at the very least through a browser. It’s a perfect fit for a Mac Mini. Windows has some decent solutions, too, or used to. My brother bought a Dell that we set up in my house so he could record and watch US TV while he was in Germany.


      1. You’re right, there’s iTunes for Windows, Amazon plays off the browser, and there’s a CraveTV app. It only requires a PC with an IR sensor, for a remote, air mouse, or HTPC keyboard. And SPDIF out in case the sound doesn’t go to HDMI.
        That sounds less crazy than 3 boxen. Thanks !

        1. Ironically, It is really a simpler solution than juggling everyone’s boxes AND apps. The digital out in the headphone jack of the Mac Mini is what I use for audio, even though it has an HDMI connector. I connect that to my stereo and keep the TV turned down.


  3. Are there any advancements in holographic displays, see-through displays, eye tracking, wireless charging presented at CES?

    Since ancient times people liked to gather round the fire and tell stories.
    Imagine having TV in the middle of the dining table, which people can speak of or to. No remote needed.

    1. That’s rather dystopian ? People around a table can, probably should, speak of and to each other ? A central TV is probably less bad than each on his phone, but still…

      1. If TV blends with the ambiance, talking is not a problem. Have you ever had a TV in the corner with a low sound while everyone was engaged? And it can provide the context for the conversation. For the conversation to flow there should be a “thing” to be discussed. TV can be the “thing”.

        Ideally, the TV will know the preferences of everyone round the table and listening to conversation and tracking eyes gaze, it would be able to provide an interesting and timely content. Then the channel won’t even need to be changed ever. I have been listening to Apple Music for more than a year now and its recommendations became so good, I just pick a weekly “New Music Mix for Vadim” without browsing for a new content anymore. An adaptive content may provide a lock-in for this kind of TV.

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