The Impact of Content Ecosystems on User Experience


It’s no secret that consumers want an alternative to cable. Even heavyweight HBO has responded to the call, announcing earlier this year that they will launch an a la carte digital service in 2015 (details pending). Sister channel Cinemax will likely leverage the platform, and competition will follow in short order.

Although an everything on-demand world is amazing for the instant gratification the Internet has provided, it requires a significantly different way of thinking about programming. It’s a great benefit that we no longer have to know a program schedule (or set a DVR to record a whole season, etc.), but all these channels we want on an a la carte basis are dependent on some kind of hardware to deliver them to your television, and the agenda of the hardware manufacturers is where some important issues arise for the consumer.

On the surface, the aesthetic interface of all these devices (Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, etc.*) is very similar. Channels represented by square-ish buttons, which reveal scrolling bands containing that channel’s content, etc. Scratching beneath this mostly interchangeable veneer reveals some pretty drastic user experience implications based on the business model of the device manufacturer:

Amazon Fire TV: By design, this is another Amazon cash register designed to get you to all things Amazon first. Despite the box implying that there’s a ready-to-go suite of 3rd party channels (e.g. Hulu, Netflix, Showtime, etc.), you have to find and download them. This isn’t difficult, but they are buried in the “Apps” menu… hardly the most obvious place to look for what people currently think of as a TV channel. Once added, they become part of a seemingly useful “most recent” band of items near the top of the screen, but in a world of on-demand, how relevant is the last channel viewed being at the top? There’s also a top-level search on the Fire TV, which was initially promising, but searching for “Homeland” only reveals purchase options via Amazon, a complete miss from a Showtime subscriber’s perspective.

Apple TV: Not surprisingly, Apple TV is centered around their iTunes ecosystem. True to form, they also control what third party services and channels are available on deck, and their order. As a long-time Apple user, I’m not going to debate Apple’s control of what’s on their devices, but controlling the order certainly cripples and for some probably kills the user experience. The problem is that the order is clearly the result of business deals, not a focus on users (e.g. channels or services individuals don’t subscribe to or care about should be removable, or at least moveable to the bottom). The only presumable benefit of a dictated order is that one becomes familiar with what channel is where, but that starts to feel like a one-size-fits-all cable lineup, not like any of Apple TV’s iOS sister products.

Roku: Until the supreme court ruling against Aereo, Roku was probably the lead contender for actually being able to cut the cord and not look back. Roku is the most flexible of the three, with literally 1000s of services and channels that include pretty much everything except iTunes. Granted, nobody would need more than a couple of dozen on the high side. And while M-GO has prime placement for movies because of a revenue share deal, even that doesn’t box a consumer in. One of the nicest feature is Roku’s top-level search, which actually looks across all subscribed services and channels (in addition to M-GO), and gives results that include the cost from each. The order of the channels is also editable, which is useful since most of us are, ultimately, creatures of habit.

A key (theoretical) benefit of cord-cutting from a consumer perspective is the ability to quickly find and watch desired content which, likely to the distaste of individual channels and services, isn’t led by a channel’s brand. Although it’s early in the game, what’s happening so far is more akin to trading out a cable subscription for a device whose manufacturer has their own “me first” content agenda appended with a la carte services. Using the “Homeland” example above, what matters to a consumer is that they are able to get to the content intelligently from the top level of their device of choice, not have to navigate to it by channel hierarchy or pay for it again if they already subscribe to Showtime.

To some degree, there is a parallel to how the music industry responded to the (pre-Napster) wild west days of web 1.0. Record labels thought they could go direct to consumer by delivering music online, bypassing retail record stores. It didn’t work because even a band’s biggest fans don’t typically know what label they are on. The difference here is that the channels are being delivered by third-party devices that still choose to organize content primarily by channel. To be clear, it would be foolish to lose channel branding entirely, but it is becoming less primary and should evolve into an optional organizational method for consumers that lives somewhere underneath a global search-based design.

Unfortunately, as channels begin to offer a la carte subscriptions independent of cable subscriptions in 2015, the main user experience change cord cutters are likely to see is a separate bill for each service and channel. This is for two reasons: there’s a hard cost in device manufacturers aggregating subscriptions (which will have consumers crying foul in no time), and there’s a conflict of interest with each hardware manufacturer’s content ecosystem.

* Google Chromecast was intentionally left out, not to imply it isn’t a significant player, but because I haven’t personally used one.

Netflix vs. HBO

netflix-vs-hboJanko Roettgers published an article “Netflix exec: HBO would have many more customers if it sold online-only subscriptions” earlier this week on GigaOM in response to David Wells’ (CFO of Netflix) statement at a Goldman Sachs conference that HBO should be more like Netflix (read: direct to consumer) to grow. Frankly, it’s not that simple and, coming on the heels of Netflix’s recent original programming award wins, this smells a little like a PR play for Netflix to draw a comparison with HBO, especially as Well’s made another comment (unmentioned in the GigaOM article, but reported by Cynopsis) at the same conference that “We [Netflix] would love… to be available via the existing device in the home, which is the set-top box.”

Netflix doesn’t have the legacy business model (or related nuances) to consider in making such a broad statement, whereas HBO has an established and profitable revenue model, one which offering subscriptions over the Internet would, at a minimum, disrupt. Not something to do lightly.

HBO’s stance of having “no plans to sell subscriptions directly over the Internet,” it’s at least partially posturing due to the MSOs having anticipated content owner’s potential desire to go direct to consumers in their carriage agreements. Most current agreements have “most favored nation” clauses that, in short, mean MSOs don’t have to pay the network more per subscriber than any other outlet they offer their service on.

Considering Netflix subscriptions hover at around $8 a month, that would be considerable lost revenue for any premium cable network. For a network like HBO, this means that they would have to immediately exceed their current subscriber base just to match their current revenue. Unless HBO were taking on significant water in their current model, there’s little immediate incentive for HBO to take the risk.

MSO deals also allow the stronger network brands to negotiate carriage for sister and child networks, something that may very well get lost in an online / direct model. And for networks with advertising, it’s even more complicated because, if they don’t hit their subscription numbers, they negatively impact both of their primary revenue streams, subscription and advertising.

HBO is already on the forefront of TVE with HBOGo and MAXGo, both as apps / services and via their on deck positions on products like Apple TV. From a consumer standpoint, a direct offering give that an online subscriber online access, but they now have to stream to their television (Apple TV, Roku, etc.) because if MSOs aren’t making any revenue on the subscription, they certainly aren’t delivering it via cable or satellite.

Meanwhile, HBO is no doubt learning a ton about the consumption habits of HBOGo and MAXGo users without having put all their proverbial eggs in that basket. Trend data they have at this point in time however is short-term (e.g the binge-viewing and non-linear programming options that Netflix thrives on), and they may not have a large enough sample set across generational demographics to make an informed decision on David Wells’ suggestion.

We will see the day in the not too distant future where networks become unbundled offerings, whether it’s an evolution of MSO offerings, networks taking the Internet plunge and going direct or some TBD hybrid. For now, HBO seems to be striking the right balance.

Thoughts on the Future of Mobile Video

Robert LaskyGigaOM author Janko Roettgers did a write-up of startups Showyou and Vidora titled with the question “Is the Future of Mobile Video all about apps?” which served as a catalyst to organize some thoughts on the subject that I’ve been mulling over the past couple of weeks (thanks Janko).

Many TV networks have standalone apps that offer some amount of streaming video programming. Given the current life stage of TV everywhere and a la carte TV being in its infancy, this is a necessary but transitional strategy for a variety of reasons:

1. Clutter: Consumers don’t want a dozen or more “TV” apps on their devices buried in one or more “TV” folders, they want a single go-to for the programming they want to watch.

2. Loyalty: Consumers are only loyal to a network based on programming. Consumers don’t think network first, they think “programs I want to watch” first and want a single place to find them. Consider, if this weekend’s “Game of Thrones” season finale were to magically end up on Showtime instead of HBO. Millions of fans would scramble to their respective program guides to find the listing so they know to tune into Showtime at 9pm.

3. Interface: Consumers don’t want multiple app user experiences to get to programming, and there’s currently no UX symmetry across any competing networks’ offerings. The app part of the experience needs to be as simple as possible, and play second fiddle to the programming the consumer wants to watch. And because loyalty lives at the program level, there will continue to be a need for a cross-network “programming guide,” which consumers won’t want in yet another app.

4. Support: Content producers and networks won’t want to be on the hook for having to develop and support applications across existing and emerging platforms over the long term. Supporting apps requires being in the customer service and support business, putting the network in the QoS crosshairs at both the feed and user device level.

Whether Showyou, Vidora, MSOs, a existing leading tech company or a TBD startup become an 800lb. gorilla in mobile video is to be seen, but there will be a dedicated delivery layer between the content creators / networks and consumers as the mobile market matures.

No Visual Intrusion

Walt_Disney_World_logoWhen you’re in the fantasy world of a Disney theme park – Walt Disney didn’t want anything from the outside world to break that spell.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of Disney World, not one of those nay-sayers who waxes on about it being watered down Americana, blah, blah, blah. What the Imagineers have pulled off is so amazing that I’d seriously consider relocating my family to Orlando if an opportunity arose to take on the kinds of challenges they do to bring dreams to life. It’s an amazing experience for kids and adults alike, and even better if you are fortunate enough to be an adult experiencing it vicariously through your kids’ eyes.

One of the reasons I believe there is no other theme park that operates at this level is because of the philosophy of Walt himself:


“I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park. I want to feel they’re in another world.”

And it’s clear that his mantra, which has become known as “no visual intrusion,” lives on with many examples throughout the parks and the grounds. For example, when the Imagineers realized that the height of  The Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios was going to impose itself on the skyline of the Moroccan pavilion in Epcot, they brilliantly designed the side of the tower facing Morocco to evoke the architectural aesthetic of Moroccan design so it wouldn’t create a visual disruption.


But there are some large stress fractures showing through the veneer that I’m trying to understand since a even a very small disruption takes you out of the fantasy world they’ve worked so hard to create.

This past October, I was in the Magic Kingdom, while the soon to be revealed “New Fantasyland” was being built. As I walked around the bend from the Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square to Peter Pan’s Flight in Fantasyland, right there in plain view between the carousel and Belle’s new castle was a full size crane disrupting the skyline.

I was so stunned, it didn’t even dawn on me to snap a picture at the time, and took this one later that day from the California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Hotel.


I’m not suggesting that the crane isn’t 100% necessary to get the new section of the park built, but there’s a very achievable visual solve… and it’s based on what Imagineers already do when they work on other buildings in the park. Wrap it so it is an extension of the visual experience. For example, with a little suspension of disbelief given the use of stock imagery, consider the following mock-up which, from within the Magic Kingdom, could have been made to appear to scale…


And now that Disney has opened the New Fantasyland, there’s a more disruptive example of a break in Walt’s “No Visual Intrusion” mantra. The view through the front of the gate the week of April 15, 2013 was disrupted by the construction site of a new roller coaster.


Perhaps even more than the crane, I don’t understand how this was overlooked given the great lengths the Imagineers go to in order to create an all-encompassing experience. Regardless of the reason, or whether the direction of the mock-up above is the “right” solve, it’s a letdown to have been allowed to see through the experiential veneer.

Remembering Steve Jobs: In the Words of Children

We’re extremely sad to hear of Steve Jobs‘ passing. He’s directly and indirectly touched so many lives around the world (most definitively everyone in our house).

We think the innocent wisdom of our children may have captured it most poignantly when they overheard us talking and watching the news:

Julia (5): That’s terrible. I wish he didn’t die so he could keep making cool things.

Rachel (8): Is there someone who will carry on?

Tim and team, while the world will never be quite the same, we offer our deepest sympathy, and hope you continue to think different as you do carry on, both for Apple and in Steve’s memory.


Robert and Svetlana Lasky

Authored on my iPhone