"I feel really good about Comcast" is not something Roku, Boxee or Google execs would want said by people who've tried out their connected TV products. Nevertheless this past Friday there were five Boston-based families doing just that.
The five families were assembled by local ad agency Hill Holliday as part of a day-long look at the future of television.
The event, called TVNext, sought to explore how the television experience is at once becoming more social, connected and portable. For the "connected" portion of TVNext, Hill Holliday showed a brief six-minute video (edited down from about 15 hours of footage) that captured how these five families felt before, during and after their connected TV experience. As Hill notes in their blog entry on this experiment, criticisms specific to a device were omitted in favor of common themes that all five families had reported during their time with a device.
Each family was what I'd like to refer to as "mainstream." They had cable boxes, DVRs and Netflix or iTunes accounts and knew how to use them. They "cut" their ties to cable for the week between Christmas and New Year's and consumed their TV content using only the device provided by Hill Holliday (either a Roku, Boxee box, GoogleTV, Xbox 360 or Apple TV). They might even read Gizmodo, but probably do not camp out here during one of Chen's breathtaking live blogs.
Finally, a FlipTV recorded the before and after interviews with Hill Holliday, with the users themselves recording everything else in between.
If the above quote about Comcast didn't give things away, one need only wade two minutes into the Vimeo linked to over at Kotaku on Friday for the kick-in-the-teeth confirmation: These boxes just aren't ready for mainstream users. Worse still for these interesting companies and products, with the prevalence of cable company-provided DVR boxes and impressive tablet and smartphone apps from FiOS and Xfinity I didn't get the impression Friday that the mainstream may ever want, or more importantly need, to give up their basic DVRs.
Good Enough vs. Dora the Murderer
Unintended humor seemed to be a prevailing theme throughout the video, with the Comcast line above getting the most laughs, followed closely by a GoogleTV search that returned "Dora the Murderer" as the top result. The mother had been searching for Dora the Explorer content for her child. Adding insult to injury, the two families with children both reported that their device did not "fit how they watched TV at all."
Now, the gut reaction, especially with a gadget-lover like me, or maybe even for many of you, would be to dismiss these families as clueless or to fall back on the ever-popular "the technology just isn't ready yet" mentality that led to my writing a "This is the year of the Linux desktop" article every year from 2004 to 2007.
From a technical standpoint, no, the technology is certainly not there yet. The UIs were clunky and vexing to these families, as were the "loading screen" wait times associated with streaming content from a cloud-based server to a connected TV device. Again, to you or I or a gamer (the Xbox was represented here, remember), these load times are an acceptable tradeoff. We understand it takes a moment or ten to stream an HD version of Inception to our 60-inch surround sound-enabled 3D HDTV.
To Joe and Jane Mainstream, however—of which there are and will always be more in existence than there are of us—these wait times break down the "lean back" culture associated with traditional and even DVR/OnDemand/Netflix enhanced TV-viewing experiences:
The devices demand a lean-forward involvement with what has been traditionally considered a lean-back medium, and this requirement proved disconcerting to many when it lasted longer than the usual bursts of involvement with their DVRs or video-on-demand channels. - Hill Holliday
Now, will people just "get used to" this active side of the future TV experience though? Perhaps, to a certain degree, but again, when we get back to the idea of "good enough" is there a real reason—again, need—for a family to break away from the already familiar OnDemand or DVR time-shifted experiences that cable has and will continue to provide?
For now and the indefinite future my gut reaction was no. The sentiment was shared by Forester V.P. and TVNext keynote speaker James McQuivey, who said that for all the talk of hyper-interactivity today, most people just "want to veg" when it comes time to consume content on their television.
"Most people" would know what they want too, as McQuivey revealed that by 21 years old, a majority of Americans have watched more than 25,000 hours of TV. As the old anecdote says, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert—meaning we Americans are TV masters! It will be incredibly hard to change this culture, especially if the dreaded cable companies continue to innovate as they have these past few months.
Cable Cutting, Cable Keeping
Yes! I said cable companies were innovating, and not necessarily with the ways they might tier their content or raise their prices in the future.
As we've detailed here before, both Xfinity and FiOS have impressed us with their "two-screen" approach to connected TV. In Xfinity's case, their iPad app is all sorts of incredible, freely empowering couch potatoes with the ability to browse and search listings, channel surf, and program their DVR right from their mobile device (streaming and advanced search updates are due out soon). Further apps and updates will no doubt find their way into the Android catalog.
Worse still for the extra box under the TV crowd, the most engaging and genuinely excited person at TVNext was FiOS director of interactive video services Maitreyi Krishnaswamy. As she gushed openly about her company's apps (no surprise), she pawed at a red-encased iPad running their app for all in the audience to see. She sat as part of a TV Gets Portable panel alongside reps from Blip.TV, Xfinity, Hulu and newcomer Snapstick, and she pretty much had control from beginning to end. If Verizon is this serious about helping customers manage the content they already view in a "good enough" way, what chance do the Boxee's and Roku's of the world have unseating ingrained tech like Flex View?
At the moment I remain pessimistic, although it was certainly interesting to learn that the typical Roku owner consumes 45 hours of content, per month, on their device.
Try as I might to see a need for these devices now or in the near future, I keep coming back to "good enough." It was a trend that permeated Hill's final remarks on the experiment:
People have well-formed expectations about how a TV should work, and the devices didn't seem to confirm well to these mental models. Surfing TV channels is seamless; "tasting" unfamiliar on-demand shows includes picking them from different menu categories and waiting for them to buffer first (and often paying for them up-front). This latency is tolerated in exchange for high-consideration longer-form content but it becomes too much of a friction when all one wants is the "in-n-out" material.
Constantly having to pick what to watch next was daunting not only because it interrupted the usual flow of TV-time activities in the house or required interacting with unfamiliar interfaces but also because of the cognitive load involved in considering all of the numerous content alternatives. "I don't want to have to think about it" was one of the strongest sentiments we've captured in our interviews. As with "the paradox of choice" phenomenon that describes how broadening the range of options leads to a decrease in overall consumption, we saw how families gave up on watching TV altogether when they couldn't decide what it is that they wanted to watch. This problem is serious enough for Netflix to award a million-dollar prize for a better way to tell people what they should watch next; it didn't seem the problem was sufficiently addressed by any of the devices.
To their credit, none of the representatives said or even hinted that their boxes were meant to completely replace cable. Ultimately, for competition's sake, I hope they are successful in some way. But again, while these devices are certainly interesting and allow for very specialized or even niche content consumption, there's no perceived benefit to the traditional TV consumer.
Come to think of it that sounds almost like a hobby. Where have we heard that before? I kid, of course. Sort of. These companies were pitching products at a conference about changing TV, after all. That will be incredibly tough to do when your competitors are the cable companies and the customers themselves (Ed. Note: An Apple rep did not attend the event, although the Apple TV was on display).
Further research is necessary, obviously. These devices may become integrated into the mainstream experience in bits and pieces, perhaps through mergers and acquisitions. The connectivity fascinates me, I use it often, but I'm not blind to the fact that a mainstream paradigm shift is years away.
Editor's note: No, Kevin McGurn, who represented Hulu at TVNext, did not respond to questions about that damning WSJ article from earlier this week. He called it "rumor and speculation" and that was it. "That's what it is, rumor and speculation," he said. So don't ask! [Hill Holliday, Kotaku]