Why Apple is ripe to disrupt the TV business

There has been talk about Apple and TV for years, but in this analysis, David Gewirtz shows why the time is right for Apple to enter the TV business in a big way and why it could be a big win for consumers and a huge win for Apple.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
The old-school TV business is ripe for a swift kick in the butt. While we have access to great programming through services like HBO and Netflix (Game of Thrones and House of Cards come to mind), the world of traditional TV distribution is fighting hard to stay locked in the 1980s.

This became particularly apparent to me when my wife and I moved my elderly parents from a few hours' drive away into our local community. During the process of setting up their new home, I had responsibility for TV and Internet and my wife took on pretty much everything else.

My first thought was to install Internet and then just pump programming over WiFi to their TV. That turned out not to be possible because a lot of local programming, network programming, and news is not available over the Internet. While my wife and I haven't noticed any lack of entertainment by cutting the cord, my parents were set in their ways and wanted their networks, their shows, and their news.

Then, in another attempt to save them from a monthly cable bill, I set up an HDTV antenna. Being in central Florida, the inside-wall mounted device didn't work. Sadly, being in the this part of central Florida puts us about as far as it's possible to get from HDTV signals, so even the big outside tower we put up only worked intermittently.

We had to get them old-school cable-box cable TV. I couldn't use a small Roku stick or a Fire stick or a Chromecast hooked unobstrusively to their wall-mounted TV. We had to take up their entire end-table with an ugly cable box. In order for them to reach it with their remote control, it now lives on top of a cardboard carton. So much for a pretty home decor.

So what does this have to do with Apple?

Let's face it. From the customer's perspective, the TV business sucks. Some shows are on Netflix, but sometimes they're dropped. Or some shows are there, but not certain episodes. Hulu Plus has a lot of good material, but only certain seasons.

Then there's the whole "clips-as-feature" malarkey, where networks and stations appear as apps, but rather than providing access to full shows, list only teaser clips. They're a waste of customer time and provide little to no value.

Where does Apple excel?

Finding an area where the customer experience sucks and making it a lot better is what Apple does extremely well. They did it with phones. They did it with music (although it could be argued that Spotify is taking "making it better" to a level far beyond iTunes). Apple even did it with computers and tablets.

Apple uses a combination of technology, design, anal attention to detail, and a very, very big economic stick to beat customer experience into submission. Apple would probably never use that last sentence as a mission statement, but it describes their operational strategy as accurately as you're likely to find.

Television is full of bad customer experiences. From hookups to cable boxes. From so-called "basic cable" to premium plans that are only premium because it makes cable executives a ton of money. From partial seasons to the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance of clips. From the requirement to be a cable TV subscriber for access to a network online to the inability to watch your programs in other rooms of your own house. And on and on and on.

Why now?

Let's start with two brand names: Netflix and Spotify. Consumers have started to taste what it's like to be able to consume their entertainment when and how they want it. Want to binge-watch House of Cards because you finally have a whole weekend off? Go for it. Want to listen to a hundred variations of the Wang Dang Doodle because you're in one of those moods? Go ahead and pitch a Wang Dang Doodle all night long. Now you can.

Next up is bandwidth. Whether its 4G or broadband, we love us our YouTube. If we can watch any of a billion or so kitten videos, we should be able to watch whatever TV episodes we want. Consumers now understand this is possible from a technical level and so their expectations have been set in terms of what should be available.

Add to that the cable companies and the old-school content providers. These companies sure don't seem to be going out of their way to win over consumers as fans. You can't go very far without bumping into someone willing to say "I love Apple," but I defy you to find a single person who's not an executive-level employee of a current TV distribution company who will say "I love my cable company." The idea of someone saying "I love Comcast" is just silly.

Consumers are ready for a better answer. While my parents (and even my generation to some degree) grew up on appointment TV, younger generations want what they want when they want it. If they're willing to pay a reasonable fee, they're used to usually getting what they want.

Think about cell phones. When the first iPhone came out, consumers were growing weary of the cell phone experience. There was a big business in ringtones and a few incredibly crappy games were sold by the carriers on a per-month basis.

Into that market came the iPhone. It was a vastly better experience before the app store showed up, and once the app store allowed one-click installs instantly and from anywhere, the smartphone business, and iPhones in particular, exploded. We may argue back and forth about whether Android is better than iOS, but no one will argue that those old phones were better than our current smartphone choices.

Apple, of course, has been dabbling in the TV game for years now, We have three or four Apple TVs scattered around the house and they get moderately regular use (they would get more, but we have very little TV-watching time here at Camp David these days).

At a hundred bucks (or less, if you're talking Chromecast), Internet TV is accessible. It's easy to set up, Even the devices themselves take up very little space. If the Apple TV is the size of a hockey puck and the Chromecast is the size of a stick of gum, why is it that the cable box my parents have installed at their house is almost as large as a piece of carry-on luggage?

Then there's the user interface. I can't tell you how many times I've had to make the cross-town run to my Mom's house to help her switch from Netflix to regular TV. The remote on her so-called smart TV baffles her and the remote has too many buttons. She just doesn't understand input switching. Plus she also has the cable box remote, which also has more buttons than it really needs.

The actual on-screen interface isn't much better. Smart TVs seem to be designed by hardware engineers with no affinity for software interface design. Smart TV interfaces (with the possible exception of LG's WebOS-derived interface) are generally ugly, slow, and clunky. The on-screen interface on the cable box isn't any better. In fact, the fastest way for my parents to feel young again is to hit the guide button on their remote. All of a sudden, they're faced with a user interface from the 1980s. It's like traveling back in time 30 years with a single button press.

Why Apple?

All of these problems point to "why Apple?" The simple fact is they are just the sorts of problems Apple can solve. Want better distribution agreements that make sense to consumers? Well, if you don't sign up to Apple's terms, that's fine. But you might find yourself losing a billion or so customers. That's a "where do I sign?" inducement right there.

Need a better user interface? I may argue all day that the Finder is crude, but there is no doubt that Apple understands usability. The days of confusing input switching, complex remotes, and terrible user interfaces would be gone if Apple had a solid solution in this market.

Need something that fits better in a home? You can fit just about 20 of the new MacBooks inside that cable box my parents have. And the MacBooks come with a keyboard and screen. There is no doubt Apple can make a smaller, tighter product. Heck, worst case they could use the Mac mini box and you'd still cut down space usage by a factor of eight or more.

I could go on and on about this, but I'll bottom-line it for you. It's a very big market with a very crappy user experience. This poorly-integrated consumer-hostile market has "Apple" written all over it.

I'll leave you with one final thought: cable TV bundles aren't just big business for the cable companies, the viewership model supported by them is at the core of how TV advertising is sold.

If Apple disrupts the cable TV business, they will also be firing a nuke directly into the heart of one of the biggest ad markets anywhere. Given that Facebook and Google make the bulk of their revenue from advertising, it's likely that Apple will see not only the disruption and sales to consumers as an opportunity, but is likely very aware of the huge opportunity that can come from sucking the teetering TV advertising market into the Apple fold.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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