Ask any seventh grader with an iPod Touch how to improve the experience of watching television, and the answer would likely come quickly: downloadable apps. These apps, and their customizability have played a major role in the rapid success of Apple’s ubiquitous device and the many variations that have spawned since. With a smartphone or tablet interface on television, users could pay for and download apps for the networks that interest them and leave the rest.
While most industry experts agree the model would be a sure-fire hit with consumers, in the multi-billion dollar industry for cable television services, this “a la carte” application model is hardly even considered.
As any cable subscriber knows, subscriptions are sold in bundles that offer hundreds of channels, though the average viewer only ever watches a handful of them on a regular basis. The bundling allows the more financially stable stations to pay for the struggling networks, and network and cable provider execs alike worry that any upset to the status quo could undermine what is still very lucrative system.
Major tech giants like Google and Apple have for years worked to update the seemingly prehistoric television model into an elegant synthesis of television and web-based media. Though the undertaking has often proven too daunting a challenge, and thus far, results have been mixed.
Despite launching television-based set-top services as early as 2007 (eons ago in the world of technology), Apple and Google have both had trouble breaking their services out of niche markets and into the mainstream. In 2010, when Google finally planned to unveil their television sets that added web video among other features, underwhelming reviews forced a delay of launch and retooling.
While Apple TV has received the standard Apple acclaim for its simplicity of use, it also suffers from a lack of content as well as non-compatibility with many non-Apple products.
Evidence of the shift can also be found from the other direction, with many traditional television networks and cable providers working to take their services into the digital age. HBO now offers HBO Go, which includes access to the pay channel’s sizable library of content. Cable subscription services like DISH Network and AT&T Uverse also offer downloadable apps that allow users to control and their DVR and watch programs on mobile devices.
Of course, most network created apps today require authentication by cable subscribers to log in before gaining access, and nearly all of them require a cable subscription. While these apps certainly add value to services that can cost upwards of $100 per month, they also serve to add more clutter to an already convoluted media landscape.
These various services and options over seemingly countless devices have created a labyrinthine network that is a stark contrast from the simplicity and ease-of-use that has made the tablet and smartphone interface such a runaway success among users.
With each passing year, the shift towards an app-based interface seems all the more inevitable, yet with cable companies and networks alike digging in their heels against the shift, viewers are stuck with a channel-flipping model that has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s. Still, as mobile apps continue to dominate the entertainment and media landscape with unparalleled growth, a shift in power is likely on the horizon.
That television viewers would embrace a tablet-based application interface on their TV screens seems to be a foregone conclusion, and savvy cable service providers will soon come to realize that in order to maintain their relevance, adaptation will be essential.
Charlie Peyton is an avid fan of TV shows and loves to share his thoughts on leading sites around the web including ExpertSatellite.com
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