We live in a post appointment TV age. By some estimates, half of US homes have either a DVR, Netflix, or some other system that allows them to watch TV conveniently on demand. That adds up to around 150 million people who are not tied to a schedule if they want to watch video programming. At the same time, the number of programs has exploded. In the US alone, there is at least 2 million hours of original programming each year. It’s no wonder that platforms like Hulu, Netflix, AppleTV/iTunes, etc. are so popular. People can’t keep up with the sheer number of shows, and must find them somewhere.
However, these platforms could be much better.
I’ve set myself the task of imagining I were the sole owner of Hulu, the standard bearer of streaming on demand media. The platform does a lot of things right, but also many things wrong, and other platforms share in their problems.
First off, paying for content.
Obviously, you can’t have content if nobody pays for it. Some services have pay for all you can watch, while others have ads, and of course there are rentals and purchased downloads. Hulu’s model is split: some shows are available for free with ads, while others are only available behind a pay wall. And yet, they still have ads.
I won’t be the first to complain about this: if I’m paying, why am I seeing ads? It feels wrong to have to wade through ads when Netflix, for example is ad free for around the same price. Some might say “Hulu needs to make more money to get rights to the content that Netflix has to wait for.” Perhaps that’s true. Even if it is, though, as a customer, I want the option to be ad free. And not just because of the potential interruptions. Ads have to load, too, and depending on the platform (Roku, X-Box, computer, etc.), those ads can make Hulu unreliable. In fact, as an aside, ad serving systems need to up their game. They are the weak link in online video reliability.
If I were king of Hulu, there would still be a free level, then perhaps a pay level where there are only ads at the beginning of the show, and then a higher pay level where there are no ads. If enough content is available, there are plenty of people who would pay twice as much just to be rid of ads. And for an extra fee per program, you should be able to download programs, too, because licensing deals end, and once they do, they’re no longer available to a streaming only viewer.
Next up, ad selection
If you are watching ads, then you know these days, especially on streaming services, they leave a lot to be desired. First, seeing the same ad over and over. Yes, there is a theory that by pounding in the same message, you essentially brainwash the viewer into remembering your product. But is it worth it? Because the trade off is hating the jingle or joke you’ve heard so many times. I have literally been at the store looking at a brand I’d seen an ad for, then bought their competing brand just because I’d seen the ad too many times. I’ve punished them for the repetition.
Some platforms, like Hulu, try to help this by giving you an option of what ad to see. Except that they don’t. Usually, your choices are for different versions of a particular ad by the same company. That’s no choice, especially if you’ve had to make that choice over a dozen times. Were I the Grand Poobah of Hulu, I would break down the ads like this: one ad during a show for a brand trying to get your attention – you know, your Coke ads, your car dealer ads, the things you don’t really need or want to see an ad about, but which are a necessary evil to raise money for programming. Then, at least one product ad you actively stated you want to see ads about – think news about your favorite band, TV show, trade show etc. Ads don’t have to be evil; they can also provide valuable info on items you actually want. And not by the stupid Amazon.com/Facebook/Google algorithm system, which basically shows you ads for items you just bought or things you mentioned in an email to your mother. No, these should be opt-in ads, where either you take time to fill out a survey, have actual real choices of ad recommendations based on your preferences within Hulu, or check boxes when you sign up on a fan email list. “Would you like Hulu to show you ads from this band?” That would be awesome, and you’d never miss another tour date, especially if the ad were triggered when the band were going to be in town.
The rest of the ads you would see would actually be directly related to you and to the program. Not just “well, the demographic for this show is 14 year old girls, so we’ll serve an acne medicine ad.” Instead, your demographic info – your age, gender, likes on Facebook, complete picture of what you watch on Hulu – would be used to serve you ads that actually relate to you. And, if you’re watching a sit-com about an architect, then maybe the occasional Architectural Digest ad. This way, you might actually want to see the ads.
And the ads themselves would be shaped by the way Hulu works. Meaning that since you may end up seeing a lot of the same product’s ads because of all those constraints, the advertisers would be encouraged to submit many variations of their ads. I’m not talking two or three. I’m talking thirty or forty different versions of an ad. Maybe it’s the same ad but with a different button at the end. Maybe all of the ads in a series make a story. Which, by the way, you could track because Hulu knows which ads you’ve seen. It means you could have serialized ads where things actually happen 15-30 seconds at a time. In this way, the advertising experience becomes more engaging, because you think you know what’s going to happen, but you’re surprised when it changes. This is a much better way to get people talking about your product. And yes, it means the spots may cost more, and also means that there might need to be some SAG contract negotiations to make sure the cost of all of those ads running doesn’t get outrageous. But I think it would be worth it.
And finally, presenting content
The aspect of streaming video that all platforms fail the most at is the most important of all: how do you organize and find content. The best answer it seems that services like Hulu have come up with is a series of loose categories with a bunch of cover images that you can scroll through. Text descriptions help. Then there is the ever useless predicting of what you might like. I have yet to see a system that does this well. Inevitably, the predictions aren’t just wrong, sometimes they’re offensive. Coupling a family sitcom with a crime drama can be bad enough; but I’ve seen it where the only obvious connection between two programs suggested is they both feature people of the same race. While this may be a valid set of choices for some people, it shouldn’t be a default behind the scenes choice; you should have to go out of your way to request it.
My solution to this problem is something I call “user generated block of programming.” Catchy, right?
The idea is to power-up the idea of a playlist. If you use a playlist in iTunes, that can be pretty handy. However, it takes some work. Plus, playlists are kind of boring – a text list of shows is never fun. Instead, I suggest empowering individuals and entertainment news outlets to start seeing themselves as programming executives. If you go to the trouble of making a playlist, now referred to as a programming block, you would now share it. Doesn’t seem that innovative. What would make this a new vision for video watching would be that the system would automatically create a video promo for your programming block. Something like “Tonight on Pop Culture Beast’s Night of Drama,’ with fancy music selected by the creator of the programming block underneath. Then, promo clips from each show would play, with bumpers like “First, from ABC”, “Followed by”, “Then closing out with”. This kind of a system would bring back the feeling of a pre-selected night of television, and allow viewers to find folks they want to follow to help them see shows they would otherwise miss.
But maybe you think of the concept of building a playlist as work. Ok, fine. How about being able to look at your viewing history, and clicking a few check boxes at the start and end of past viewing sessions, then calling that a playlist. No need for a new search or clicking between a bunch of different screens. Just take the viewing you’ve already done and make it work for you.
In addition, I would change the way programs were presented when you venture out on your own. There is just so much out there, that you need filters just to find it all. Alphabetical and search just isn’t sufficient. While browsing, I should be able to pivot on any dimension of a program. If I like crime dramas, I should be able to see a list of them. Like a particular actor, writer, producer, director? Click their name and see a list, sortable by name, date, rating, or all three. Every list should have filter buttons allowing for most and least viewed, anonymous lists of shows your friends watch, etc. You also should be able to quickly hide programs you never want to see in a search again, definable by user account, so that you don’t remove your wife’s favorite shows from search.
There’s more I would do. But with these changes, I think that TV viewing would become a much more enjoyable experience, and the system would help the viewer actually find new, interesting content they might otherwise miss.
Eliot has been orbiting show business for over 20 years as an improv comedian, video director, and general guy you might barely recognize. Currently best known for his work on the comedy podcast Never Not Funny: The Jimmy Pardo Podcast. He wrote previously for MacEdition.com, and is working on a collection of short sci-fi and weird tales that will probably be published someday. He is also one of three principals in Modest Games.