Who will create the best streaming video experience?
Pioneering DVR service TiVo announced a comeback plan at this month’s CES, but can even the company that defined TV on the viewer’s terms realize the true potential of streaming video?
By Brad Berens
At this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, TiVo announced the release of a new gadget, the TiVo Stream 4K. On the surface, the TiVo Stream 4K looks like other “dongles” — Amazon’s Fire Stick, Google’s Chrome Stick, and the Roku Streaming Stick are all examples — that plug into a TV’s HDMI slot and let you stream until your eyes dry out because you forget to blink.
However, the TiVo Stream is different because it wants to integrate all the different streaming services into its own, “one user interface to rule them all” experience.
Here’s how TiVo CEO Dave Shull explained it to Cheddar:
“We’re not using the word ‘DVR’ anymore. We’re not using the word ‘guide’ anymore,” Shull told Cheddar. “We’re all-in on the streaming wars.”
While platforms like Roku or Amazon Fire TV Stick combine streaming apps into a single plug-in hub, Shull says TiVo Stream will emphasize easier access to shows, movies, and other content over switching between apps.
“What’s unique about TiVo Stream 4K is that it’s all about the shows,” Shull said. “Most of the competition out there right now, they force people to go from app to app to app.”
In effect, this would erase the barriers between services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, creating a single catalog of searchable content. Shull said that the time is ripe for this kind of innovation, as your average consumer now subscribes to seven different streaming services, up from four in 2016.
From the user’s perspective, this would be fantastic. When I sit down after a long day to chill out and watch television (whether streaming or on cable), I resent having to do a homework assignment to figure out what’s out there, what I already have access to, and what I’d have to pay more to see. Failure to differentiate within those last two categories is my big gripe about the Amazon Prime Video and the Apple TV+ interfaces. If TiVo can do this–can highlight what I get and make the rest go away–I’ll plunk down $69.99 to give it a try.
Too often, dealing with more than one customer at a time — each with their own wildly different opinion — is where services break down in their ability to generate satisfaction. Dealing with groups is still the provenance of talented humans: teachers, tour guides, waiters, hotel concierges, the big guys behind the velvet rope at the club. The complexity behind triaging multiple erratic other entities is one of the things keeping self-driving cars from becoming reality as quickly as some people desire.
I dig the dream. The question, though, is whether or not TiVo can achieve this either technologically or diplomatically.
Technologically, can TiVo parse the offerings of every different streaming service, slicing and dicing them into one interface? Do they have open APIs that will allow this access? And what about “you watched that show over there, now think about watching this show over here!” algorithms that drive what viewers see on different services. Will TiVo have sophisticated AIs that absorb each viewer’s data from different services, mix and match them, digest them, and then serve up acutely relevant recommendations? In other words, will my watching the Veronica Mars reboot on Hulu teach TiVo something about what I might like on CBS All Access?
Diplomatically, regardless of how great this would be for viewers, why would Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV+, YouTube, or the forthcoming HBO Max (not to mention the many dozens of other services) allow TiVo to do this? Each of those services wants to be an ecosystem unto itself, an all-encompassing platform rather than just a channel for somebody else’s platform.
The path TiVo has chosen is hard.
What would be a truly terrific streaming experience is even harder.
Finding things to watch together
When I sit down to watch television solo, I may gripe about my TiVo guilt, but at least there’s stuff I already know I like.
In contrast, when my lovely and brilliant wife Kathi and I sit down together unless we’ve already found a show that we both like (and thank heavens for current fave “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+), then we’re in for a slog looking for something that strikes our mutual fancy.
The dream is that an artificial intelligence will know:
- What I’ve watched across all our available services
- What Kathi has watched
- What we’ve each liked
- What the characteristics of those shows are
- The fact that we want to watch something together
- What other shows available to us match some of those characteristics but are still somehow novel
- And then share a narrow, curated set of options so we can quit searching and start watching.
That’s a tall order! Netflix can’t even do it on one platform, let along across several.
And the order gets even taller if we factor our two teenagers–each of whom is no stranger to having a preference about what to watch–into this “what shall we watch tonight?” scenario.
Who provides the intelligence?
Too often, dealing with more than one customer at a time–each with their own wildly different opinion–is where services break down in their ability to generate satisfaction. Dealing with groups is still the provenance of talented humans: teachers, tour guides, waiters, hotel concierges, the big guys behind the velvet rope at the club. The complexity behind triaging multiple erratic other entities is one of the things keeping self-driving cars from becoming reality as quickly as some people desire.
My guess, is that for TiVo to succeed it will have to partner with one of the AI giants in order to change the “what shall we watch?” game, and here the creators of the digital assistants are the most likely candidates: Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon. That’s where things get sticky because Google and Amazon both have big advertising businesses while most of the streaming services are either advertising free or have no-ad options.
Microsoft is the best AI partner for TiVo: it sold its ad business to Verizon years ago, has let its Cortana assistant work with Amazon’s Alexa (so perhaps it can help to broker the deals TiVo needs), and has a small but robust video business within its Xbox platform.
Will the best experience win the day?
Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer. He is also principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting.
See all columns from the Center.
January 22, 2020