Android TV to get a major overhaul at just the right time

Google was ahead of the curve when it launched Android TV in 2014. Instead of just presenting users with a list of streaming-app icons, Android TV's big idea involved a row of recommendations from across different apps. The hope was that users wouldn't have to leave the home screen to find something to watch.

But being first isn't the same as being best, and over the past few years, other platforms such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku have all done a better job with cross-app recommendations. Meanwhile, Android TV's approach didn't get much buy-in from app makers, and the platform as a whole seemed to stagnate.

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Hulu wants to change TV; here's why it can't

Hulu's chief technical officer, Tian Lim, dreams of a streaming TV bundle without ads, or at least one where the ads are less frequent and more interesting. He can even imagine demolishing traditional TV schedules, replacing them with something entirely different for the streaming age.

Yet none of those things will happen any time soon. Like many of the folks I’ve been speaking to at the Streaming Media East conference this week, Lim recognizes that change comes slowly in the TV business. For now, companies offering streaming bundles like the newly launched Hulu with Live TV must keep their most ambitious ideas in check.

“Right now, it feels like we’re pretty hamstrung by a lot of the legacy in broadcast TV,” Lim said during his keynote speech. “As we ran into legacy systems and operational pain, we did have to compromise quite a bit to clean things up.”

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This is how the bloated TV bundle collapses

Allow me to relay a few recent events in the TV world that might not seem too significant on their own, but together portend disaster for the bloated TV bundle:

  • On Tuesday, Disney announced a 3-percent decline in pay-TV profits last quarter, driven by ESPN's higher programming costs and reduced subscriber base. ESPN has lost 12 million subscribers since since 2011, according to Nielsen, and last month, the company laid off roughly 100 employees, or about 10 percent of its “front-facing” talent.
  • Just a day earlier, Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav referred to streaming bundles such as Sling TV and DirecTV Now as “a bit of a stuffed turkey.” He then called for a sports-free TV bundle in the ballpark of $10 per month. Discovery’s latest earnings report also reveals a sting from cord cutting; its subscriber count dropped 3 percent year-over-year last quarter. The company admitted that this was a “slight acceleration” from the quarter prior.
  • As a whole, pay-TV providers lost 762,000 subscribers in what is supposed to be a solid growth quarter, according a report last week by MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. That’s despite favorable household growth of 157,000 homes since the previous quarter, and 500,000 homes year-over-year. “Whatever the cause, it seems naïve to suggest that we have seen the worst of the trend. Instead, this is almost certainly just the beginning,” Moffett wrote in a research note.

The takeaway here is not merely that the TV bundle is having a bad time, but that it’s being ripped apart by an intertwined set of forces, including a steady decline in pay-TV bundle participants, the escalating cost of sports in TV bundles, and frustration from non-sports TV networks that feel hemmed in by the current system.

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Sling TV misleads cord cutters with its "a la carte" marketing push

A la carte TV has been the holy grail of cord cutting for as long as I’ve been writing this column. Instead of mandatory bundles, people want to pay reasonable prices for only for the channels they care about.

This dream won’t become reality any time soon—for reasons I’ll explain later—so imagine my surprise last week when Sling TV claimed to be “introducing A La Carte TV.” That phrase now splashes across the Sling TV homepage, and appears throughout a back-patting blog post by CEO Roger Lynch.

Upon inspection, Sling TV’s claim turns out to be just marketing fluff. The company has made no changes to its service, which still involves paying for a core bundle of channels, and then choosing from a selection of smaller add-on packages. While that structure can be cheaper and more flexible than other streaming bundles, such as PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now, it’s not always the least-expensive option, and it’s definitely not a la carte.

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Local channels in streaming bundles: Why they're hard to get, and how that's changing

If your TV diet includes major broadcast networks, cutting cable can be a challenge. Live streams from ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox stations are only available in a small number of markets, so without solid reception from an antenna, potential cord cutters are stuck.

But that might change in the coming months. TV networks and streaming bundlers are finally finding ways to get local stations on board with streaming bundles such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now. Once that happens, dropping cable will get a lot easier.

The affiliate issue

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What cord-cutting TV antenna users need to know about the FCC's spectrum auction

If you depend on free over-the-air broadcasts from a TV antenna, you might have heard rumblings about a spectrum auction by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will bring big changes to your local broadcast TV stations.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to tell from the media coverage what the auction actually means for antenna users. To figure it all out, I’ve done some research and spoken with the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) executive vice president of communications Dennis Wharton.

Here’s what cord cutters need to know about all the upcoming changes:

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How to cut the cord without resorting to a pricey streaming-TV bundle

Confession time: Although it’s my job to review and write about streaming channel bundles such as Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and the new YouTube TV, I have little interest in using them personally.

Most of my TV consumption comes from Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, all of which are available without a traditional channel bundle. As such, I’ve established a viewing pattern that largely avoids advertisements, is highly flexible, and is much cheaper than cable. Eight years after cutting cable TV, I don’t feel compelled to tack on a big bundle of streaming TV channels.

With so many of new bundles emerging—including an upcoming Hulu bundle and rumored packages from Comcast and Verizon—it’s easy to assume you need one to cut the cord. (I’ve even defended these bundles as a potential alternative to cable.) But there’s also a counterargument: By sacrificing traditional TV channels, you may achieve a purer—and arguably, better—form of cord cutting.

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