Word has been building that Apple is planning to launch a subscription-based Internet TV service near(ish) future, and I’m afraid. My fears can be neatly summed up in one word:
Almost all traditional TV has ads, except for a few premium channels like HBO. And they’re horrible. During a typical one-hour TV show, roughly 18 minutes are given over to ads, leaving only 42 minutes for actual content.
In the late 1990s, devices like TiVo appeared that let viewers record or pause shows, then play them back later, fast-forwarding through the ads. (The same was possible with ye olde VCR, with a bit more legwork.) Big media companies hate these devices because they let people skip over the ads that bring in revenue. Fortunately for TV viewers, there’s not a whole lot the media companies can do about it. I’ve been using a TiVo-style DVR for about ten years, and I rarely see TV ads outside of live sports.
Enter a TV service from Apple. In order to launch its service, Apple will need to secure the rights to distribute TV content from the media companies. In those negotiations, media companies are operating from a position of strength: they have the content that everybody wants. Certain to be among their conditions in any contract with Apple: un-skippable ads.
You might’ve seen these kinds of ads if you’ve watched shows on Hulu. Guess why: Hulu is a joint venture of NBC/Universal, Fox, and Disney/ABC. It’s also worth noting that buying a paid subscription to Hulu Plus doesn’t get rid of the ads, it just gives you access to more content. In short, Hulu works the way the media companies want it to: You pay for access to the content, and you’re forced to watch ads too. No DVR in the middle, no skipping the commercials. (And no variety in the ads. Seriously, how many times in a row can they show the exact same commercial?)
A TV service from Apple is likely to work a lot like Hulu. It might have a greater variety of content or a better UI, but the commercials will be there to stay. Why is it filling me with fear if it’s so similar to existing streaming services? Because an Apple TV service is likely to be far more successful and widely used than Hulu. It’ll turn a niche product into a widespread one, and the ad model will come along for the ride. Once everyone is used to un-skippable ads, they’ll be awfully hard to get rid of. We’ll be back where we started 20 years ago: watching the same ads for Chevrolet pickup trucks for 18 minutes out of every hour. (Oh, and those 18 minutes? That’s 30% of an hour, which just happens to be the same percentage that Apple takes as a cut from sales on the App Store. Certainly a coincidence, but an eerie one.)
I tried to watch a show on Hulu recently, and I couldn’t get through it. After ten years of commercial-free TV, I just couldn’t stand to be forced to watch the same ad over and over. I’d rather record something on my TiVo, watch it later, and skip the ads. Sure, Hulu will let me watch on my phone or iPad wherever I go, but the experience is much worse. An Internet TV service would have to offer a lot more than portability to get me to watch all those ads again. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather keep giving Comcast (Comcast!) my money and using my trusty DVR.