Rated ugly: Will TV Everywhere free us from bad cable box menus?

October 14, 2010, 7:29 PM UTC

As cable companies take on Netflix and Hulu with TV Everywhere, they’d do well to remember that where video content is concerned, a polished interface is part of the package, and the main area where they’ve been beat.

At a time when more than 21 million people now regularly stream film or television content from services like Netflix Instant and Hulu, cable companies still think they have the consumer by the eyeballs, but have begun to see that they may have to try harder to not lose their grip. Take Comcast’s (CMCSA) $30 billion deal for NBC Universal, buying not just a television operation, but the ability to control how and whether NBC’s many broadcast and cable offerings are distributed online.

As Comcast CEO Brian Roberts integrates NBC into his behemoth cable outfit, Time Warner (TWX) CEO Jeff Bewkes is finishing up the exact opposite task, having spun off Time Warner’s cable division (TWC) in February of 2009. Despite the inverse approaches, both companies’ content primarily ends up in the same place: the sleek-looking but often clunky digital cable box sitting underneath your television. The middling quality of the cable box experience is partly the reason that startups like Netflix and Hulu, with sleek webby interfaces and intuitive functionality, have managed to thrive and grow. Now cable companies are getting ready to launch an online salvo, TV Everywhere. But have they learned their lesson?

Bewkes, who was traveling and unable to comment to Fortune in time for publication, seemed to tell the Wall Street Journal in a recent interview that he was leaving questions of content delivery, and the thorny problems of user experience that come with it, to companies like Google (GOOG), Verizon (VZW), DirecTV (DTV) and yes, Comcast. “When all of the content on the big screen works like the content on the little screen, what will happen? The programming will trump the interface.” Bewkes told the Journal.

But while content providers love saying they’re platform-agnostic, that doesn’t mean Bewkes, Roberts, et al. aren’t working on their own plans to compete online. The tack cable operators and content creators are taking to gird for digital battle is TV Everywhere, which will allow cable and satellite subscribers to watch TV programming on numerous other non-cable box devices — PCs, Google TV-enabled set-top boxes, and mobile — for free. By October of next year, Bewkes, who’s spearheading TV Everywhere, has estimated the service will be readily available to 70 million households.

But if TV Everywhere replicates the cable box experience, it’s going to be an instant ghost town. While neither Netflix Instant or Hulu offers anything like the complete catalogue that a content owner like Time Warner can provide, what they lack in depth, they make up for with polished interfaces that allow the user to get to the content the sites do have quickly and hassle-free. TV Everywhere might therefore be an attempt by content providers and cable companies at making an end-around the slow, clunky cable box experience many customers pay nearly $100 a month for. Not only that, but the content providers– NBC, Fox, ABC — already had a chance to develop a “TV Everywhere” back in 2007. It was called Hulu, and though the networks invested in it, they gave it so little chance of success that it spun far out of their spheres of control and at this point is a competitor to the hand that feeds them — the cable companies. (The cable companies of course had nothing to do with Hulu, which is perhaps why the two sides are working much more closely together on TV Everywhere.) Now, the question is, can the old boys catch up to the red-hued leader of quality online viewing experiences?

“Netflix is a master at simple, engaging experiences,” says user experience designer Catriona Cornett. “They make it fun to discover new content through clever and intuitive movie and TV show organization with a focus on only showing information relevant to the consumer, and highly responsive controls.” While it’s hard to account for every VOD service, it’s fair to say that for the most part, the overall user experience can be frustrating at best and broken at worst.

Too many barriers

Video on demand, or VOD, is the closest cable comes to competing with Netflix right now, and it’s a study in contrasts. “The experience of on-demand is atrocious,” says user experience consultant Whitney Hess, a long-time Time Warner Cable subscriber. “Navigating the interface is extremely difficult. It takes way too long to retrieve what you’re looking for.” Hess, who served as a consultant for the home theater software Boxee’s redesigned interface earlier this year, points to Time Warner Cable’s lack of comprehensive home screen as one example of the poor design: Though the Time Warner Cable remote offers an “on-demand” button with access to more than three pages worth of programming, HBO and Showtime on-demand  aren’t included in that list — you have to navigate through hundreds of regular channels to find them.

Time Warner Cable and Comcast cable also toss in unwanted features like video previews and tons of ads, and bury actual content beneath categories and subcategories, menus and submenus. So getting to a specific show or movie you want to watch may actually require trial and error. (Many services don’t have a search feature.) Say you want to watch the latest episode of the ABC series Castle on Cablevision. To do that, you need to navigate through the following directories: On Demand / Free On Demand /Prime Time Shows / ABC / Castle / Castle 10-11 HD / Play. Of course, there’s been precious little reason to fix VOD; last year cable companies earned $4.5 billion from the service, according to research firm SNL Kagan, though both companies say they aren’t waiting for TV Everywhere to improve: Comcast offers xfinity online streaming which it says is being “continually tweaked” by developers, and Time Warner Cable is plowing ahead with an iPad app, according to spokespeople from both companies.

Hulu and Netflix (NFLX) keep things comparatively simple. On Hulu, you search for the show, and the most recent episode appears first in the results. Hulu also automatically plays at the highest available bandwidth setting. With Netflix, when you browse through a category, only the most relevant information is displayed, like movie or TV art, title, length, rating, MPAA rating, and user reviews. The system progressively reveals more details only after a selection is made, keeping the experience of picking a video distraction free.

Pick a category, any category

Cornett believes another major on-demand problem lies with the actual hierarchy of information — that is, the way content is categorized. A list of categories or options on a cable box may be a mix of TV channels, topics, lifestyles, even specific shows, which seem arbitrarily chosen. For some reason, Comcast makes it a point to differentiate between “TV Series” and “TV Entertainment.”  They also divide HD content from standard-definition content, making users browse multiple categories to see if a program or movie of interest is available since it may be listed under one or both of these categories.  In Cablevision, the experience is only slightly less scattershot: three of the 12 primary movie on-demand categories are “Barbie Movies,” “Pink Ribbon Movies,” and “Fangoria Frightfest.”

Netflix categorizes not by video format or production company, but by common sense, and manages to take most guesswork out of the movie-picking equation. There are also few if any subsections to navigating the site. The categorization of videos is personalized, as categories based on the consumer’s viewing habits like say, Feel-good Romantic Comedies, are pushed to the top of the homepage while still providing access to standard categories like Comedies or Action & Adventure further down the page.

Slow and clunky

If you’ve used cable on-demand, then you know it can be far from a smooth ride. Part of this is likely to blame on the hardware as much as the software, but the systems can be annoyingly slow to navigate: slow to start up and slow to get from menu to menu. Some services, like Comcast and Cablevision, also don’t offer basic features found in DVR like fast-forward and rewind. Users who have been “trained” by DVR-like services can find themselves disappointed.

“It’s funny because video on-demand relies on a cable running under the ground, plugged into a massive structure,” says Hess, who points to Netflix Instant’s better responsiveness compared with video on-demand in general. “You really would think it would be more responsive than content over the air [as in Wi-Fi].” It’s worth noting that many cable customers are probably accessing Netflix and Hulu over that very same cable line, via high-speed Internet. In that way, users are already choosing to bypass their cable boxes in favor of using third-party services.

Perhaps that’s because consumers are increasingly at home in web interfaces. Navigating from one page to another on Netflix or Hulu is usually pretty quick. In those instances where there’s a lag — say, when programming is loading up —  you’re at least shown a progress bar or gauge that indicates progress is being made. (No such luck with most forms of on-demand. You’re often left by yourself to figure out whether it’s still loading or frozen. And you can’t flip over to check your email.) In newer browsers, Netflix and Hulu even provide pop-up bubbles with text or screen grab thumbnails rather than shuttle you to a different page.

But if Netflix and Hulu lack the breadth of content that many video on-demand services do, why do Cornett and Hess still side with these relative upstarts? Basically, the sites cater to their users and their demand for smooth experiences and content. So their users are more forgiving if they don’t have every last show or movie because they’ve provided them with a hassle-free way to access what is available. Cable’s decades long monopoly seems to have stagnated the industry’s innovative drive, and TV Everywhere is perhaps the first industry-wide acknowledgment that television is about to be, despite claims to the contrary, in a dogfight to keep couch-surfers holding remotes rather than laptops.

Hess compares the difference in video services to the wildly varied consumer experiences in the restaurant industry. If a chef who makes the best-tasting food on the planet doesn’t know how to properly present it, the poor experience will trump the cuisine every time. With TV Everywhere, cable companies are finally acknowledging that their front-of-the-house offerings, digital cable boxes, are a bit of a mess. The question now is whether the giant cable companies can leverage their power and size to spiff up their dining rooms before more diners head over to that charming boîte with the red awning just down the street.