A lot’s changed since I started writing about cord-cutting in 2014, but one thing remains constant: The TV industry doesn’t make it easy.
You shouldn’t have to sort through a dozen different apps to find something worth watching, and you shouldn’t need an entire pay TV bundle just to watch one specific live channel. You also shouldn’t have to be a tech-support wiz just to make your TV work the way it did with cable. Yet through a combination of greed, shortsightedness, and technical complexity, that’s the way it is.
So, I’m paraphrasing Walt Mossberg and writing what I hope will be a wake-up call. It’s time for the industry to do the right thing and make streaming easier for everyone.
My main impetus for writing this column is last week’s launch of CNN+, a $6-per-month service which, in the grand tradition of other streaming services from legacy media companies, does not include a live feed of CNN or any of its cable shows. It’s an entirely separate service with a parallel track of programming.
Jared Newman / IDG
CNN is likely doing this because it doesn’t want to disrupt its precious exclusivity arrangements with pay TV bundle providers, but that shortsightedness has already prompted a fair amount of confusion and frustration from viewers. It also creates more work for me, someone who will now have to repeatedly explain to readers that CNN+ and CNN don’t overlap, just as I’ve done in the past with ESPN+ and Discovery+.
If TV networks had the guts, they’d solve all of this by making their cable content and channels available on their respective streaming services, thereby making those services much more popular. But of course it can’t be that simple, because there’s too much money to be extracted from pay TV subscribers first. That’s not your fault.
Also fresh in my mind is Plex’s new universal streaming guide, which lets you browse for things to watch across Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and dozens of other services. You can even use the app on your Fire TV, Apple TV, or Android TV device as an alternative menu system, whisking you off to the corresponding app once you’ve picked a movie or show to watch. It’s similar to existing universal guide apps from Reelgood and Justwatch.
The mere existence of these apps speak to how badly the major streaming platforms have botched the TV guide concept on their own. While Apple TV, Fire TV, and Android TV devices already have their own universal guides, none of them integrate with Netflix, and their live TV service integrations are patchy. They’re also worse than third-party apps at filtering results by subscription and letting you know when a movie or show is about to leave a particular service.
This is all because of politics. Technically, there’s no reason Netflix content couldn’t appear in Apple’s “TV” guide app, on Google TV’s home screen, or in the “Save List” in Roku’s mobile app. It just hasn’t happened because Netflix seems to hate universal guides as a concept, and none of the major streaming platforms want to upset one of their biggest partners.
As a result, we have to rely on third-party guides just to perform the kind of aggregation that cable companies managed to pull off decades ago. It’s ridiculous and it’s not your fault, either.
Even the basic act of signing up for a streaming service can be a perilous process.
A few weeks ago, I attempted to install the Philo app on an Amazon Fire TV Stick. Although I already have a Philo subscription—provided by the company for review purposes—Amazon also pushes a separate Philo subscription through its own billing system as the default option when you try to download the app. Had I chosen this option instead of the “Download app only” button at the far end of the page, I would have been billed again through Amazon for a subscription I already have.
Jared Newman / IDG
Amazon isn’t alone in doing this. Google, Roku, and Apple also sell subscriptions to certain streaming services through their own billing systems, separate from if you signed up for those services directly, and they make it easy to sign-up with just a couple clicks. If you’re not careful, you can get double-billed. While this might be good for business in the short term, I suspect it will sow distrust in the long term.
One of the most frequent complaints I get from readers is that things just don’t work the way they’re supposed to. Videos buffer. Apps mysteriously stop working. Routine operating system updates wreak unexpected havoc.
Technically, some of these issues might be your fault. Maybe you don’t have a strong enough Wi-Fi network, or you’ve resorted to shady piracy services that aren’t known for reliability. Still, the sheer complexity of streaming makes troubleshooting more difficult than it ought to be.
Cord-cutting still has significant benefits. It’s given us more to watch than cable ever offered, while also offering more control over how much money we spend on TV entertainment. At its best, being able to search for a decades-old movie or show and watch it instantly at a reasonable price still feels like magic.
Yet, there are so many ways in which streaming TV could be more convenient and less complicated. Don’t blame yourself if it feels overwhelming.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.