Content is king. At least, that’s how the saying goes in the entertainment industry. If the wildly-productive state of TV in 2022 is any gauge, the phrase is accurate. The term ‘Peak TV’ has been used to describe the content of the last decade, as studios fill their customers’ plates with a steady diet of mysteries, sci-fi, horror, police procedurals, comedies and superhero shows. And we can’t get enough.
It’s a far cry from the tortuous days of my childhood when there were only three measly network channels, a handful of locals airing syndicated content, and PBS. Shows aired when they aired, and if you missed your favorite program, well there were always Christmas break and summer re-runs (oh, the cruelty of forcing a child to wait till the summer to see a missed episode of Knight Rider). Binge watching shows was literally not possible unless the network saw fit to run a marathon, airing a proverbial firehose of random episodes of your favorite show for hours at a time on a single day. Fun and yet frustrating all at the same time.
Cable TV came to the unwashed masses in the 90’s, but even this was (and still is) a mixed bag in terms of content. We suddenly had access to over 100 different channels, but somehow we could never find anything we actually wanted to watch.
But something crucial changed in the 2010’s, giving TV a much needed shot in the arm. The internet got really fast, and coverage started spreading like wildfire. Gone were the days of 10mb/sec; now speeds were averaging 100mb/sec and gigabit was on the horizon. This new super-powered broadband enabled a separate ecosystem of streaming services to proliferate alongside traditional cable TV. Netflix and Amazon started making their own content. Studios like Paramount and HBO began streaming their original shows and movies, as well as selections from their back catalogs.
And then came the holy grail: Live streaming TV services like Youtube TV and Sling were born, and they carried live sports in all its HD glory (this was the single biggest factor that had previously kept most people from embracing streaming TV).
All of this sounds as if we have arrived at the gates of entertainment nirvana, right? Well, almost. Content is still king, but the sheer volume of quality content that currently exists is staggering. Unless you’re a true enthusiast, the job of content curation has now become the problem. How does the average streaming subscriber locate the content they will enjoy, not just within the various streaming services, but across all of them?
This is not just a matter of finding the shows you are already aware of; it’s also about content discovery. Individual services curate their own content with varying levels of success. Netflix is arguably the best, having made viewer data analytics their primary focus for the last 15 years. HBO Max needs to put their algorithms back in the oven and let ‘em bake a little longer. But if you are looking for an all-inclusive experience that matches the content to the customer and folds in all of the services, then that job has currently been off-loaded to the humble streaming box.
What’s on your TV?
A close cousin to the cable box, the streaming box is the device that powers our new app-centered TV universe. It’s also not always a box. There are dongles, boxes, sticks, and most recently the tech is being built right into the television itself. Whatever their form factors, these platforms are not just content delivery systems. They are all trying to find the signal within the noise of our current content deluge and present the viewer with an experience tailored to their tastes and preferences. But there’s one company doing it better than the others, and in my opinion, it’s not even close: Google.
So, are we talking about Google TV, the newest Chromecast dongle? Or the UI skin on Android TV? Look, I could do a whole article about the confusion Google creates with how it names things. (Seriously, I think I will write one, because it’s weird and frustrating that they are so incredibly bad at it.) For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call Google TV the “experience” that lives on the latest Chromecast, as well as the most popular models of Android TV (Nvidia Shield, Walmart’s ONN TV).
There are some key differences from device to device, but they mostly are not relevant to the scope of this article. I’ve owned an Nvidia Shield TV for years, but not before sampling from the buffet of options. I’ve personally used Roku (I still have a couple of these), Amazon Fire TV, Xbox One, and even my own cobbled-together home theater PC running various different streaming operating systems (more on that later).
The Shield easily outclassed all of them. From the depth of the app catalog, to the ease and power of the search function, Nvidia’s tiny streaming box and its Android TV brethren were like the One Ring, taming all of the other services inside. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Android TV recently leveled-up with the release of Google TV as an enhanced UI. It added a streamlined look and feel, as well as polish to the formerly-geeky experience.
Unlike Roku, Google TV felt like it was ready for “average” non-tech families, but without the walled-garden restrictions of Apple or Amazon. But the killer feature is one that’s still in its infancy. Underneath all the visual fluff lies the beating heart of Google’s AI machine learning algorithms that Google TV uses to make recommendations for users. And these aren’t random suggestions like the other boxes, but actual recommendations based on your tastes and preferences as Google understands them.
Now, in true Google form, the feature is half-baked. You sign-in, pick from a selection of genres you like, add some shows to your watchlist and voila: recommendations happen. Some are good, and some aren’t; like I said, it’s clearly a beta-level feature. But it’s awesome, it has potential, and it represents the type of feature that only Google can do successfully because at their core, they are a data company.
Google has more data about you than anybody, and I don’t mean to say that in a way that freaks you out. Google leverages its data about you, not as a product packaged up for sale to the highest bidder, but as a way to create a very personal experience as you navigate its various properties throughout the internet. I’m not arguing that Google’s intentions are inherently benevolent; this personal experience keeps you engaged longer, and allows them to sell targeted ads or keep you as a subscriber for their paid services. Google is, after all, a for-profit publicly-traded company. But the distinction is important. Google TV’s recommendation engine will only get better as time goes on, and it will be their obvious advantage over other competitors in the market.
Clearly, Google TV isn’t the run-away success that you’d expect given all the praise I’ve been heaping on it. Most average people likely don’t know what it is. However, with some time, and inside the right product, Google TV will break through. Part of the reason why I feel like escape velocity is close, and the product is so polished now, is that this is actually Google TV’s second attempt to perfect the streaming box. And if you’re remotely familiar with this article series, you’ll know how that story ended. The first Google TV was a flop.
Cord-cutters were ahead of their time
Let’s do a little time-traveling, folks! Set the flux capacitor to the year 2002. Bush (the second one) was in the White House, Spider-man (the first one) was top of the box office, and Nelly was making it “Hot in Herre” on every radio. Cable TV sucked, and I had just decided to drop my cable subscription, connect a DSL line for internet only, and subscribe to a scrappy new DVD company called Netflix.
You see, Netflix delivered DVD’s by mail for the low, low price of $9.99/month and had no late fees! Best of all, they had FULL SEASONS of TV Shows! Netflix wasn’t just the alternative to Blockbuster, it was my alternative to Cable TV. I remember renting the early seasons of the X-Files and watching them in a marathon (I prefer the term marathon because binge sounds like something that later requires a purge). Sure, my fiance and I were watching TV that was a few seasons old, but with the Netflix queue, there was always a DVD at home ready to watch.
We continued this way for several years, never really completely satisfied with the limitations, but preferring it to the vastly more-expensive cable TV which held nothing of interest for us. One thing I was clear on: I wanted on-demand content, even if the market hadn’t evolved to provide it yet. A lot of people felt the same way, and we called ourselves cord-cutters.
Around 2008, we slowly started to see our dreams come true. Netflix started streaming, a new website for streaming TV called Hulu launched, and a relatively stable Home Theater PC platform (stay with me here; I’ll come back to this) named Boxee released their first beta. The moment was electrifying; it felt like the on-demand streaming media future was actually taking shape. Netflix’s streaming content was fine, but Hulu had all of the major network TV shows on-demand, as well as a catalog of prior seasons. This was when NBC, Disney, WarnerMedia and News Corp had combined to form a sort of streaming content Voltron, thinking this was their best option to appease upstart Gen-X nerds like me who wanted more viewing options.
All things considered, it was more on-demand content than anyone had ever seen, and if you were a cord-cutter depending on these services, this is the moment when the curation problem began to surface. We needed some platform to pull all of these services together into one experience. Boxee (told you I was coming back to this) promised to be that service, turning any computer into a set-top box with full Netflix and Hulu integration. There was also Pandora, CNN, and direct streaming from the major TV networks websites. So I did what any self-respecting, cord-cutting nerd would do; I repurposed an old laptop into a home theater PC, installed Boxee on it, and plugged it into my television.
The results were sublime! I bought a portable keyboard and a remote control that plugged into my laptop, and I was off to the races. It wasn’t an ideal solution aesthetically, but as a cord-cutter, this was victory! And then as quickly as it came together, it all fell apart. TV content providers, including Hulu’s corporate overlords, were obsessed with keeping their streaming services off of actual TV screens, while promoting laptop viewing as a sort of alternate or second-screen viewing experience. They didn’t want to cut into cable and satellite subscriber revenue.
When TV networks realized that Boxee users (and XBMC, Geexbox, and others) were turning their laptops into TV set-top boxes, the short-lived party came to a screeching halt. Hulu and most of the TV network websites blocked Boxee access. Boxee would attempt to work around the blocks and thus began a cat & mouse game where the end user never knew if a particular service was working on any given day.
Obviously, this killed the seamless viewing experience in my house, turning every viewing session into a, “Sweetie, give me 10 minutes to tinker with it” speech. My wife never forgives me to this day for subjecting her to this indignity. In spite of the fanfare when it was released, Boxee felt janky, like a bootleg firestick, before such things existed. In fact, platforms like Boxee (and later Kodi, for which the firestick is actually associated) have had a dubious relationship with pirated content, precisely because they were never able to go legit.
A streaming box with Chrome at its core
Google partnered with Sony and Logitech to create the hardware, and used Android as the operating system. One of the devices that hit the market, the Logitech Revue, was actually really cool. It was just a flat black box, but the mini-keyboard option was all types of awesome. Android was in its infancy then, so the UI was nothing to write home about. But you had Netflix (because Netflix was on everything), Last.fm, Accuweather, and… a full-fledged Chrome web browser to stream everything under the sun, including YouTube! Honestly, it felt like this was what Boxee had promised, except with the legitimacy and cooperation from the major TV networks. Wait, it was legit, right?
Wow. Just wow. In fact, Google TV was exactly like Boxee, somehow replicating the experience of the failed multimedia TV platform by assuming they could deliver content to viewers with or without the TV networks’ blessings (or licensing and distribution agreements). Not quite a bootleg strategy, but not that far from one either. Remember when I said content was king? As a former Boxee user, I knew where this was heading. Without content, Google TV began its slow march toward obsolescence. Google’s assumption was that the TV networks, fresh off of watching Apple drive a wrecking ball through the music industry, would joyously welcome Google as a benevolent alternative. Google was wrong. Networks didn’t trust Google any more than they trusted Apple.
Enter Google TV: The Experience
So, Google once again visited the autopsy table, this time to examine its failed TV platform, as well as its overall living room strategy. Google learned that content was the most critical aspect to any TV device, and that content needed to be front and center. People didn’t care about cool TV hardware or convertible remote controls (the remote was awesome); much like me in 2001, people just wanted their shows.
TV networks would eventually come around to accept that streaming apps on TV were the future. Perhaps they did learn something from their music industry siblings who failed to embrace MP3 streaming until they were facing ruin. By the time Google launched Android TV (the operating system) in 2014, streaming apps were more common and they had embraced the TV as a home by supporting Google’s new Chromecast protocol. Android TV arrived with Chromecast (the cast protocol) built-in, a few actual network-created TV apps, and a completely re-imagined UI. In a sly nod to its bootleg past, Google introduced the ability to cast a tab from your computer’s web browser, instead of installing the browser onto the device. If an app didn’t exist, you could cast a tab from the website and watch the content on your TV. Casting became the content provider of last resort. It was a clever hack to buoy the platform as developers slowly added apps.
Even so, Android TV remained niche compared to Roku and Apple TV. Perhaps Chromecast – which had far better sales than Android TV devices due to its dirt cheap price-point – was cannibalizing the Android TV market. It makes sense because in 2021, Google introduced a hero device and pulled Android TV and Chromecast back under one platform banner: Google TV. Well, the official name of the hero device was Google Chromecast with Google TV.
And the Android TV devices were now receiving Google TV updates, so they would technically be called Android TV with Google TV, right? Like I said, I’m going to write an article exclusively about how Google names things. In any case, what Google got right was the focus on content curation. Google TV gives you recommendations, it learns your tastes, it puts the platform in the background, and the content front and center.
It’s quite something to look back on how TV has evolved thanks to streaming boxes and fast internet. The improvements in these technologies have directly enabled better and more abundant TV content. Creators like Netflix know exactly what their viewers want to see, rendering obsolete old methods like Nielson ratings. In my 12 years as a cord-cutter, I can say without hesitation that we’ve never had it so good. In fact, in many ways, today’s TV landscape has exceeded my dreams. I subscribe to way too many streaming services and I have a backlogged queue of shows I can never hope to watch. It’s a far cry from my days of fumbling with Netflix DVDs. Google TV began as a web browser on a TV screen. Now it is curating and even predicting the content we want to see. As incredible as things are today, I think the best days of streaming TV are ahead of us.