Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A New Perception: All "TV" is Streaming and Nothing is Different

The headlined screamed USA Network Goes Darker to Court Millennials. Say what??? The channel that brought us 125 episodes of "Monk" is doing what?

"Millennials" refers to the generation born between 1980 - 2000 or some slightly fewer years depending upon who is defining the term. But regardless, we've got a grandchild who is Millennial.

Yeah, we're over 70. But we're not slackers in keeping up in this age of technology. My wife and I had a business offering computerized business services in 1980. We were using satellite TV in 1988. We've kept up. Our current home network/entertainment system isn't unimpressive. Click on this representational graphic if you don't believe me:

It is mid-2015 and apparently time to embrace a new perception about TV if we are going to have access to programming that will appeal to us.  That perception is all TV is streaming, even when considered in historical context. And we all should consider the historical context.

In terms of the "everyman," our parents came of age in the era of the automobile, with the promise of a "car in every garage." We came of age in the era of the TV, offering "streaming" entertainment in every home. And somehow this year while viewing web videos on tests of the self-driving automobile, to use an analogy I realized 2015 is the year when we need to embrace the TV equivalent of the arrival of "power steering and the automatic transmission" - Netflix and other TV streaming not through a satellite or cable or from radio waves.

TV in My History

We started watching TV "content" over 60 years ago on a "device" that looked like this:

It received radio signals captured by a 40' antenna on the roof, signals that delivered an "analog" audio/video stream with entertainment "content" which we could enjoy.

It was simple to use - you basically had a few TV stations (three national networks still available today - ABC, CBS, and NBC) sending out those signals on "channels" which you could select by rotating the knob on the right. The video display, about the size of a laptop computer display, was black and white, the audio was monophonic meaning there was one speaker because there was only one sound channel.

TV evolved. Within 10 years, the video was in color. But it took 35 years to get a additional national broadcast network still available today - Fox.  It remained an analog radio signal that delivered the audio/video stream to a "device" that looked like this, though the signal came via a cable TV company which may have been providing additional "cable" channels:

You could change channels using a remote control.

But while the hardware evolved, content was both limited and scheduled.

TV Today

All TV streams today are digital. You can receive them "off the air" via a radio signal, or through the cable or satellite TV company, or through your internet service provider's cable, or through your cell phone service provider (using a radio signal). The streams for the most part provide a high definition picture and surround-sound channels.

Unlike that one "device" we used to watch TV 60+ years ago, we have multiple "device" choices at fingertips. The devices through which we can view TV include what is traditionally known as a TV screen, but they also include other electronic devices known as computers, tablets, and smart phones.

And unlike those few channels, we now have essentially an unlimited choice of content, much of it available at our fingertips as we tap remotes, touch screens, mouses and more.

The content does include scheduled TV from TV channels, in our case from the stream delivered by a satellite TV company, Dish Network. For others it could be from the cable company (or off the air). But we watch it on our schedule because we record the programming on a DVR.

And the content from scores of subscription internet streaming websites - right now we use Netflix, Amazon, and Acorn TV - is available at any time. They do release their original content TV series and movies at various times, with full seasons of TV series shows, say 10 episodes, released at once.

And then there is Sling TV, an internet streaming service that provides live streaming of cable channel content plus limited on demand content.  Cable and satellite offer the ability to record content on DVR's for later viewing plus "on-demand" streaming. But Sling TV offers a much less expensive option, albeit limited, and it offers HBO.

Technically the hardware is exceedingly more complex than 60 years ago. But you don't need our investment in technology, in devices, to watch a full range of streaming TV. Many flat screen TV's on the market provide all the "apps."

For the older viewer dealing with the content requires a new understanding.

How Do I Schedule My TV Viewing?

Let's acknowledge the elephant or 500 pound gorilla or whatever in the room. Our Millennial granddaughter was never conditioned to watch TV on a schedule. There was never a time in her life that the programming was not "on demand." When she was young it was on a DVR or DVD. But as she reached her teen years, streaming video was at her fingertips on the internet.

Because of technology constraints when we began watching TV, we were conditioned by ABC, CBS, and NBC to watch entertainment TV between 8 pm and 11 pm daily, while the local channels brought us news and some syndicated shows between 5 pm and 8 pm. We had to choose at any particular time what show we wanted to watch. If we picked "Gunsmoke" on CBS, we simply could not watch what was on the other networks until Summer Reruns. If there were three good shows on at 9 pm, the best we could hope for was to watch two, one during the regular season and one in the summer. If there was nothing we wanted to watch at 8 pm, we had nothing to watch.

In mid-2015 at any time we can pick from hundreds of shows. We won't live long enough to see all the things we may want to see. It may even be possible to watch a series we were forced to miss in 1975 because of scheduling conflicts. Good grief!

Don't get me wrong. I know "it's only TV" and there's a big wide wonderful world out there. I have advocated the idea expressed by this week's New Yorker cover:

But during a certain time, around four hours between 5 pm - 11 pm, we're used to watching stuff on TV. And if CBS, et al. isn't setting the schedule for us, who will?

Welcome to a new perception. All TV is "on demand" streaming - meaning you have to set your own schedule. The upside is it's very flexible. The downside is that the number of choices are overwhelming.

And so for the person who never sat there with the remote flipping through the channels catching pieces of programs already half completed, who knew what shows he wanted to watch, watching TV has become a scheduling "challenge."

But there is problem with many internet streaming options.

Now About Those Commercials

When the 2015 Summer season began, I initiated our one month experiment. I downsized our Dish Network subscription, adding internet subscriptions for streaming services Netflix, Acorn TV and Sling TV with HBO to our lonely Amazon Video (including Prime Video) streaming.

In terms of hardware in the home theater, the Sling TV service (which is owned by Dish) with the HBO add-on is available on our Amazon Fire TV Stick and Netflix is available through both our Dish Hopper and our Fire TV Stick. However, we view Acorn TV through our Intel Compute Stick which also has access to everything else.

In the Master Bedroom the newish Samsung TV has apps for all the services which indicates where home entertainment is going.

Anyway, in downsizing the Dish subscription our access to some cable channels became streaming only - for instance AMC which at this time is offering some shows we will be watching. And I already have learned we can't do this. It's the commercials. When you stream shows airing on advertising supported channels, you have to watch the ads, no skip button, much less "auto-hop." And that's turned out to be a deal killer in our household.

This is a problem that isn't going away. HULU execs indicate that they will be ad supported in the foreseeable future. They represent ABC, NBC, and Fox, plus a lot of other streaming content. In April they announced a multi-year deal with AMC Networks Inc. for the exclusive subscription video on demand (SVOD) rights to new and upcoming primetime scripted drama and comedy series from AMC, IFC, BBC AMERICA, SundanceTV and WE tv.

So since we want to watch shows from AMC and skip commercials, I ended the Sling TV service experiment and restored the Dish subscription to its prior level.

Maybe it's because we don't "multitask" like the Millennials. Note that for the Millennials multitasking doesn't seem to mean unconsciously knitting sweaters for Christmas gifts while watching TV.  Rather it means interacting on social media, texting, even watching video on their smart phones and tablets, all the while watching TV.

The problem is, no one, and I do mean "no one" regardless of age, can "get" the nuances and subtle messages in shows like "Mad Men" and "True Detective" while multitasking. But this is a generation that seemingly doesn't care to get "the outdoors" as indicated in the New Yorker cover above (which is probably good since we're leaving them with a warmer globe). Maybe "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" doesn't need focused attention to get what the show's about.

If you don't mind waiting a year or two, one way to watch those shows that originally air on commercial-supported channels is to use Netfix or Amazon Prime or other ad-free subscription streaming content services.

Or if you don't want to wait, and waiting is a problem when you are old and may not be alive next week, you can pay to watch many series. For instance, AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire" Season 2 airing now is available on Amazon Video without commercials for $16.99.

But watching all our TV that way would become prohibitively expensive.On the other hand, watching commercials is prohibitively painful.

The real result is that we are now just spending money for Netflix and Acorn TV, while we continue to use Dish Network to skip commercials at the same old cost.

Yes all TV is streaming, but except for those willing to watch commercials nothing much has changed yet. You just have to pay more to get all the good stuff on new "channels" such as Netflix. The only consolation is that we may be getting access to better quality TV shows. For now.

Oh, and as an observation, if the new shows on the USA Network, "Complications" and "Mr. Robot" are what appeals to Millennials, they have really good taste.