sports Uncategorized

Summon the heroes

As I’ve written before, I love the Olympics. I love the music. I love the faux-drama, manufactured and packaged by the broadcasters. I love the fact that, for two glorious weeks, I don’t have to decide what to watch on TV.

Most of all, though, I love the Olympics medal ceremonies. There’s something irresistible about about watching an athlete experience the pinnacle of his career live on TV. When that national anthem kicks in, the tears flow, and we get to piggy-back on the winner’s emotional high.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find these medal ceremonies online. Even during the Olympics, NBC seems to delight in hiding them. And soon after the Games end, that network pulls its clips permanently.

I’m guessing that the broadcast rights lapse and revert to the Olympic Committee. But I can’t explain why the IOC doesn’t do a better job of curating this content online. Why not make all Olympic highlights—including the medal awards—instantly viewable online? Are they hoping to sell lame DVD box sets? That era is over. Is it too expensive to run this sort of video portal? Sell ads against the content, implement a subscription plan, or—heck—put them on YouTube for free.

But don’t shoot yourself in the foot by locking this valuable content in a vault somewhere. Don’t block your most enthusiastic fans from celebrating your product. Instead, make it easy to search, filter, play back, and share highlights from every tournment stretching back to the dawn of the television era. Let me watch all the women’s rowing medal ceremonies from the 2012 Games (for example), boiled down into a single, gloriously emotional playlist.

technology TV Uncategorized

The best Internet TV device is still your laptop.

Hooking up a PC to a TV using cables. That’s so 2008.

So proclaims the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, whose recent article summarizes the many options consumers have for getting Internet video onto their TVs. Xbox, TiVo, Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, smart TVs: these devices purport to make online video just as easy to watch as more familiar broadcast television. Click a button on your remote, sit back, and watch.

Why does Mossberg exclude the possibility of just hooking up your PC to the TV? He dismisses this as the “most complex” option. But is it? Connect a single cable, and your set-up is done. Now watching the TV means simply browsing the web. There’s no new interface to learn. No peripheral device you have to buy. No flaky proprietary streaming protocol that may or may not work reliably (a la Chromecast, Airplay). No extra monthly subscription fee (a la Xbox).

More importantly, your content options are simple, too. With all other Internet TV devices, choosing one locks you out of some video services. Apple TV lacks Amazon Instant Video. Roku has no YouTube app. Use your PC, though, and you get everything. Anything that can play on the web can now play on your TV. Not only do you get the major video services (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), but you can play live streams from the major news networks. You can peruse less-familiar sites like Funny Or Die, Vimeo, and Daily Motion. You can watch sports broadcasts using your subscription to or NHL GameCenter. You can even project your less… (ahem) “legitimate” content sources to your television.

The main complaint about this set-up? You lose that mindless, “sit-back and browse” experience so familiar from traditional TV. Hauling your butt off the couch every time a show ends can get annoying. There are options to improve this experience: hard-wiring a long HDMI cable to your recliner would work. Or you could download a smartphone remote app that lets you control your PC while sitting down.

But, then again, do you want to watch mindlessly? One of the scariest things about traditional TV is how easy you can blow your weekend, watching shows you hardly like. Conversely, an advantage of the PC-to-TV set-up is its occasional inconvenience. While it’s easy to watch what you want, it’s just enough of a hassle to discourage those lazy, trashy marathons you later regret.

technology TV Uncategorized

Betting on the binge: Netflix, House of Cards, and the future of appointment viewing

We rejoined Netflix, and I can’t stop watching.

I’ve already devoured two seasons of The Walking Dead, AMC’s zombie gore-fest. We’re plowing through Arrested Development, a show that somehow slipped under our radar back in its day. West Wing looms on the horizon, along with a half-dozen other series we never caught the first time around.

In other words, we’re binging—and loving it. It’s a pleasant way to veg. No weeklong wait between episodes. No commercial breaks. Dig into a show on your own terms, not on the schedule that helps the network win sweeps week.[1]

We love it, and so do millions of other viewers (especially the younger crowds marketers salivate over). For us, this is “TV”. Not hundred-dollar cable bills. Not frustrating slogs through weeks of reruns, waiting for a new episode. Just an easy-to-use, inexpensive service that encourages us to overindulge on our favorite shows.

Knowing how much its users love to binge, Netflix has gone all-in. House of Cards, an original series produced by the online service, never aired on a network. It was never released piecemeal, episode by episode, either. Instead, Netflix debuted Cards’ entire first season all at once: fourteen episodes—teed up for immediate binge viewing.

The binge is in, but the old model has its strengths, both for the networks and their viewers. For over half a century, the television industry emphasized “appointment viewing.” Popular shows were hyped as “must see TV”, and viewers rearranged their schedules to tune in, every week—“same bat time, same bat channel.”

This steady time slot approach helped make television a social phenomenon. Fans planned parties around each new episode’s premiere. Workers gathered around the water cooler to discuss the previous night’s shows. And as social media—particularly Twitter—ramped up, this communal conversation spilled out onto the web.

Viewers want to watch together. The desire is hard-wired into our brains. For most of human history, after all, we gathered around the campfire, huddled against the dark, and told each other stories. We still gather—only the flickering light comes from a talking box, and the stories get beamed in from afar.

Slowly but surely, the networks realized how important social viewing was to a show’s success. For a series to go viral, it needed rabid fans to share it with others. So the studios now do everything they can to encourage this conversation. Thus, we get hashtags superimposed over every broadcast.

This leaves Netflix in a precarious position, with irreconcilable agendas on all sides. Their subscribers want to binge freely and share the viewing experience with others. The networks—who still provide the vast majority of Netflix’s content—need a viable release model for the digital age and a way to promote their product.

It’s a tricky problem, but here’s one way Netflix could solve it: help users sync their viewing with each other. Make it easy for people half a world apart to watch the exact same thing at the exact same time. If one person pauses, the other does, too—automatically. And, as their mini-marathons roll along, friends would share their reactions, real-time, on Twitter and Facebook, thus recreating the hashtag effect in miniature.[2] Netflix itself might even organize some parties: “Jump into LOST with the rest of Netflix, starting this Friday at 9!”

The binge is no longer fringe. To satisfy its viewers, appease its content providers, and cement itself as the streaming king, Netflix should invite us to binge… together.

  1. In fact, if anything, the binge trend undermines TV ratings, since it encourages viewers not to watch the best shows as they air. Let the bandwagon pass you by and the seasons stack up. Then, once the show airs its finale, you’re free to enjoy the entire series. You can rocket through Battlestar Galactica in a long weekend. You can power through LOST in a fortnight. You can skip over the universally-reviled episodes to reach the fan favorites. If you can wait out a show’s broadcast run, TV works around your schedule, not the networks’ prime-time strategies.  ↩

  2. In fact, the XBOX Netflix app had something like this functionality in its “Party Mode,” until a firmware upgrade wiped this feature out  ↩