Don’t touch that dial. Photo by x-ray delta one
The Breakdown: Maybe one day we’ll arrive at some kind of perfect, connected, when-and-where-we-want-it TV experience. One where we only pay for the content we want, and it’s all on a single sleek device, and each household saves around $70 a month. But we’re nowhere close to that. We’re living in a time of television device/content chaos. So, we thought we’d to do a quick informal survey among the CS community here at Razorfish, to answer these questions: How do you watch TV right now? And how is that working for you?
As the responses rolled in, we found a fascinating range of frustration, disorder, and ingenuity.
I use an iPad connected to my TV to stream Netflix shows and movies, or use my desktop and laptop to watch Amazon Prime selections. I almost never use my phone to watch anything. More and more, I watch TV series after they’ve run, rather than waiting for each new show.
While shows have always been episodic, the ability now to watch episode after episode in one sitting makes viewing more like the experience of burying yourself in a sprawling novel—you decided when and if to stop. I’m guessing that writing might catch up with the way people are viewing shows these days—there could be short, intense episodes followed by longer, more elaborated episodes, breaking free of the conventional arcs of time-slotted stories. Subscriptions to streaming services, I suppose, will support this kind of viewing.
I just moved to a new apartment. I was able to carry my entire TV setup in two trips: one for the TV, which is about as light as the bag I carry to work every day. And a second trip for a plastic bag holding HDMI cords and gadgets. I have an Apple TV, a PS3, and a Mohu Leaf antenna for basic broadcast channels. And that’s about it. I remember past moves, even five years ago, when a large LCD TV was a two-person job, not to mention the confusion of the DVD player, wired TV speakers, laptop adapters, a couple of surge protectors, color coded three-headed A/V cables, and so on. In sheer weight and number of plugs, things have definitely gotten simpler.
Now the complexity is in the content sourcing. Once you’ve made the jump from a traditional cable bundle, you have to just make it up as you go, pulling from iTunes, HBO Go, Hulu, and shadier places if necessary. What’s most interesting to me is that there’s no universal solution. No two cord-cutters watch TV in the same way.
I have a pretty crazy set of devices and services for watching TV content.
My main sources of content are network/cable broadcast and Hulu. But I also have a variety of ways of time- and location-shifting them. For cable I use my DVR or On Demand (OD) channels included in my Time Warner Cable subscription. I can watch Hulu on my TV at home via either Apple TV or Wii, or I can watch it anywhere via iPad or laptop. I could also watch my DVR or Cable channels anywhere using SlingBox, on either iPad or laptop. I also have a Simple.TV which records over-the-air network channels (via a digital antennae), to a cloud DVR service, which I can watch online from anywhere.
I can’t say I have a single favorite – I like different approaches for different reasons. At home I prefer watching on my TV (rather than laptop or iPad), and the DVR gives me the most control, in terms of what’s available and skipping commercials. But if I record shows in HD it runs out of space pretty quickly. So, often I record things on the DVR mainly as a reminder, and then watch the shows on HD OD channels or Hulu, if they’re available. I could watch any of these on the iPad when away from home, but unless the wifi signal is excellent it’s usually too slow and frustrating. The Simple.TV is an interesting experiment, but the UI is still very much a work in progress, so it mainly serves as a backup to my other approaches. It came in handy when TWC & CBS were feuding this summer, as it allowed me to continue to watch The Late Late Show while the channel was being blocked by TWC.
I guess you could say I’m kind of a TV nut. I don’t intentionally save shows up to binge on them, but they do tend to pile up a little. Then, because I have so many different ways to watch them, I find I have trouble keeping track of where each show was saved, and what I had and hadn’t watched, and then remembering to clear episodes off of other platforms after I’d watched them. I had to make a spreadsheet to track my TV shows!
I rarely watch TV and I don’t have cable. Like many people, what I have instead is the Internet. I don’t miss TV at all. Having to endure the ads when watching commercial TV now is shocking.
Instead, I am sometimes confronted with the twin problems of device diversity and choice paralysis. Problem is, no one device gives me everything I want. I’m not saying no such device exists. Just that my peculiar arrangement gets me most of what I want, but not everything.
I’ve long had a Roku and now a Google Chromecast. I can stream Netflix, Amazon Instant and Vimeo video via my Roku. And now I can stream most of that plus Youtube via Chromecast (as well as native music and video from my laptop via Chrome). However, I can’t watch Amazon Instant Video via Chromecast yet (a Silverlight problem, apparently) and my Roku is sometimes flaky with the same (a Time Warner problem, probably). Of course, I can watch all of those things on my big screen now, but I can also watch them on my laptop and to some degree my iPad and iPhone. I can watch most shows soon after they air. And buying episodes individually is actually cheaper than cable. Plus Netflix is killing it with the binge TV lately. Hello House of Cards! Hello Arrested Development! Hello Orange Is the New Black! So why would I bother with cable? If my cable provider allowed me to purchase HBO a la carte, I might get sucked in, but like many other stubborn folks, I refuse to pay for a raft of programming I’ll never watch.
That said, I do currently have one exception to my 21st-century viewing habits. How am I staying on top of the last few tensioned-filled episodes of Breaking Bad? I watch it at a local bar. As it airs.
I exclusively watch TV shows on Netflix because our TV set-up in our common area consists of a giant, hideous non-flat-screen TV that is covered in a super unhealthy layer of dust. At one point, someone plugged a Wii into it and went through the process of setting up the Netflix app, but other than that it has no cable connection and barely picks up any of the local channels. To add to that, each of us has an unusually spacious bedroom, so really we all seem to prefer to not hang out in the common space, which is why our TV setup in there is old and decrepit.
I personally like to veg in my bed after work and stream Netflix from my 21″ iMac, which has functioned as my “TV” since I got it in early 2011. (I know, what an expensive TV, huh?) Regardless, that iMac is the closest thing I have to a SmartTV and so it is also where I consume most of my viewable content. My routine is to take my wireless mouse and wireless keyboard across the room to my bed and MacGyver the whole thing into an elaborate remote system that has somehow come to feel totally natural to me now.
I mainly stream Netflix, but occasionally in the mornings I’ll live stream Pix11, The Today Show, or GMA while I’m getting ready for work. I also have an iPad Mini, which has enabled me to stream Netflix during those random times I get inspired to cook extensively in the kitchen.
My favorite setup, however, is to veg in bed with the previously mentioned 21″ iMac streaming The League (or some comparable, snackable episodic comedy) while I surf on the iPad Mini. This enables me to watch the show AND enhance that viewing experience by looking up characters/actors on IMDb or wading through related #hasthtags and Twitter conversations. On this flip side, this also means I’m probably completely distracted and immersed in something totally unrelated from the show I’m supposed to be watching.