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The Gordian Knot of Television

Simplifying TV is more of a business problem than a technology problem.
November 30, 2012

TV is a Gordian Knot. Even from the standpoint of the consumer, the world is fragmented and confusing. We watch everywhere–on our phones, our tablets, our computers, or TV sets. We use a plethora of apps. Some of us are cutting the cord, deeming TV-over-the-Internet sufficient for our needs. Yet there is a constant hunger to simplify and to consolidate, to bring all the pieces of TV under one umbrella. One of my favorite lines I came across about the TV space lately was this: that fragmentation itself had become fragmented.

The problem is, what looks like Gordian Knot to the consumer looks like an even more confusing Gordian Knot to the folks in the business world trying to cut it. Nilay Patel over at the Verge has a very thoughtful look at how Apple or another tech giant could remake television.

He begins with a fascinating clip that I hadn’t seen before, in which Steve Jobs was asked about how to fix TV’s interface. Jobs replied in a manner that showed that this really wasn’t a technology problem, but a business problem–specifically, a go-to-market problem. He listed a few concerns, but central among them was the fact that the TV world is “balkanized,” with a plethora of cable operators; there’s no one GSM standard like the one that helped Apple remake the cell phone industry. The last five minutes of this video are worth watching in full.

Jobs comes across as almost fatalist in his outlook on the TV space–far from his now-famous cry of having “finally cracked it,” a claim he made to his biographer. Patel, though, clearly feels that the problem is crackable–though daunting. Patel outlines two principal scenarios: Either Apple (or a competitor) works with cable companies, or they work directly with content providers.

Let’s take up the second option first, since it’s intuitively pleasing. Why bother with cable companies? Why not just let Apple negotiate directly with networks for their content, cutting out the middleman? Basically, it’s a giant negotiation problem, though. As Patel points out, “instead of managing just a few major relationships with the cable providers, Apple would have to manage hundreds of relationships with content companies — companies that already have testy relationships with Apple services like the iTunes Store.” (And the man who deftly managed those relationships, Eddy Cue, has his hands full fixing Apple Maps at the moment.) If Apple, or whoever, took this route, it’s likely that the launched product would be missing a number of major channels.

The other option is less intuitively pleasing, less Occam’s Razorish in its simplicity, but it’s probably fundamentally the more likely one. This is for Apple to basically allow cable companies to outsource their UI design to Apple. The cable companies actually make a lot of money off those interfaces, though, through ads, pay-per-view buttons, features shows and the like, so that will also be a huge negotiation.

But there are some forward-thinking leaders in the cable industry who have signaled a willingness to make this happen. Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner’s CEO, is an interesting figure to watch. He recently said that he’s eager to see if Apple will make a TV of its own. “I hope they do,” he said, citing Apple’s “good interface and navigation skills.” Bewkes is canny, also aware of the potential threat of so-called “cord-nevers” to his business–young folk who, far from “cutting the cord” of cable, never really adopted it to begin with.

The takeaway here is that there’s only so much speculation we observers in the tech press can provide on whether Apple or another company will provide the hardware and software to supposedly fix our TV woes. It’s a massive business and negotiating problem, and the battle to struggle to simplify our TV watching experience is probably happening on golf courses and in fancy restaurants, rather than in R&D divisions.

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