The death of net neutrality was a kick in the proverbial Planters bag, but we’re still not worried about the future of the set-top box (aka media player). Big industries like cable and publishing and the music industry have a knack for moving really slow and protecting today’s profits rather than worrying about the future. While it keeps the bills paid for now, it’s not a good long-term plan, and it usually means the eventual death of the old guard.
In short, cable is far, far behind the set-top box — any STB, whether it’s FireTV, Apple TV, Roku, or an off-brand — because it refuses to innovate. And innovations like these, which you can find via media player, are sure to kill it.
1. Commercial breaks are much shorter.
This is a small one but it makes a big difference in viewing network and cable content. Sure, you see the same crappy commercial, sometimes twice in a row, but watching via Hulu Plus or Crackle means you watch, at most, three commercials before returning to your programming. And as a bonus, none of the content is edited to make room for more commercials. Take that, Time Warner.
2. Viewing suggestions are optimized based on your interests instead of a large package of channels that you never watch.
You buy a package of 60 channels and watch three or four. Meanwhile, it runs you $70 or so per month before sales tax. That’s a lot of wasted space on your archaic cable box. Cable bases its content and advertising on the masses. STBs are more highly targeted and include apps like Netflix and Amazon that take the time to learn you and build a connection between your interests and the content that caters to them.
3. Professional sports are catching on.
Okay, so wrestling may not be a sport, but WWE Network made me a fan again, after I took a decade-long hiatus from watching a single match. That, and the 600,000 initial subscribers are beyond impressive. It doesn’t mean that wrestling is a non-cyclical business, and that it will never again experience hard times, nor does it mean WWE stock will get you rich; however, it’s a heck of a start after just 42 days. NHL, MLB, and MLS, are also doing things right (and were even before WWE Network came along). Now if ESPN would pull its head out and make their apps available without a cable requirement, we’ll be in business.
4. They create an environment of choice.
Even if you still have trouble “finding things to watch,” the environment of choice created by a STB is much greater than what you get through cable, where you are often tied to time slots and the whims of a poorly run on-demand channel. (Looking at you, HBO GO.) With the selections offered via the many movie and TV apps, you feel like there is ALWAYS something to watch. And even though it may take a little time to find it — same thing as far as cable goes — you usually succeed in finding something.
5. Web video: much easier to do via STB.
Cable boxes are badly behind the times for the most part. Meanwhile, their competitors make it easy to bring the web experience to your television. One example that comes to mind: Apple TV. If you’re familiar with Hulu Plus and Hulu Web, you know there are things on the latter — the free service — that you can’t get on Plus (the one you’re actually paying for). Not Hulu’s fault. Stupid rules from the content providers and what-not. However, if you have an Apple computer and want to watch something on regular Hulu via the television, you can just Airplay or extend your desktop to the device and drag it out to the television. I can only assume FireTV and Chromecast will offer the same option.
6. Traditional TV is ‘just there’ while STBs actually engage the viewer.
Cable’s line of thinking: “This is what’s on. Deal with it.” STBs, on the other hand, actually help to engage the viewer by putting you in charge of the apps and content that you watch. Roku makes this really simple on the viewer through its own separate ecosystem of channels. Furthermore, the content creators who exploit STBs to good effect, are always following up to make sure your streaming presentation was what you wanted it to be. In other words, they’re very good about soliciting feedback that is designed to improve your individual experience. Cable providers generally don’t give a crap.
This isn’t a huge deal right now (unless you’re a PS3/4 or Xbox 360/One owner), but with the coming of FireTV, casual gamers who’d rather beat up on their Friends list via Song Pop can do so on their television. FireTV’s rich ecosystem of indie games is sure to get bigger, more advanced, and more accessible, thus pushing the boundaries of what a STB is capable of when it comes to adding games, movies and television to the mix. Best of all, it’s a lot cheaper than the gaming systems mentioned above.