Article: The Excitement of the Apple TV

by on August 30, 2013

I probably watch more television than I should—it was my field of study in college. I’d like to think that I’m at least making good decisions in what I watch, balancing out the more mindless of content with things that challenge me. After Tuesday’s update to the Apple TV, I was excited about the possibility of more content on my favorite little video streamer, and the future for this part of Apple’s product portfolio.

I purchased an Apple TV in October 2010, mostly for Netflix, AirPlay (audio only, video was coming with a future update on the iPhone and iPad), and accessing content from my Mac. To me, that was worth the $99 point of entry. Although AirPlay has allowed for virtually anything to be displayed on the Apple TV, that still requires tying up another device, unless the developer was really forgiving about running the app in the background. Instead, we have seen Apple beef up its options for content directly on the Apple TV, which I think is slowly shifting the appeal from iOS device users to anyone with a free HDMI input and $100.

Over the last year, the Apple TV received a number of significant content options, including Hulu Plus, WatchESPN, HBO GO, VEVO, The Weather Channel, Disney Channel, Disney XD, Smithsonian Channel, and Sky News. Although some of these require a cable or satellite subscription, it could allow someone to potentially forego getting a second or third cable box, provided they’re happy with on-demand content (or ESPN’s live streams). For someone who doesn’t care about the offerings of Disney, ESPN, or HBO, an Apple TV can be a great device to create a very basic “cable” product:

  • An antenna on your TV can bring in local channels with local news, some sports, and broadcast television shows.
  • Mix that with 24-hour news on Sky News, The Weather Channel, and WSJ Live, and you get a pretty good news lineup.
  • Smithsonian Channel brings a lot of education content that reminds me of the early days of Discovery Channel or History Channel.
  • VEVO and iTunes Festival satisfies the “back when they played videos on MTV” fix.
  • If you add Netflix and/or Hulu Plus, you’re only out $8-$16/month and you have a good chunk of broadcast and cable series past and present, as well as some movies.

Congratulations, for about $16/month, you’ve built an on-demand cable lineup with about the depth of what most people would get in the early ’90s. If you subscribe to services like Crunchyroll or Qello, you can add some special-interest options for only a little more.

The biggest limitation for the Apple TV without a cable subscription is sports. Although you can purchase the MLB.TV, NBA League Pass, or NHL Center Ice packages, leagues and providers will most likely black out the team in your market, since you “should” be watching these over cable. As far as ESPN goes, I think we’re a ways off until someone figures out a way to offer the package at a reasonable price—right now everyone with a cable or satellite subscription pay for it, but not everyone uses it.

I do see the Apple TV getting more content, probably some along the lines of “secondary on-demand cable box”, but even more free versions of channels that just aren’t everywhere. One that immediately comes to mind is the recently-launched Al Jazeera America, which does not have a spot on a lot of cable systems, and even has been dropped by some, due to its ownership. Fox Sports could also bring a channel to the fold, especially since some of the things broadcast aren’t your typical NFL/NHL/NBA/MLB variety. Speaking of sports, I also potentially see other sports leagues that may be a little less focused on blackouts and TV deals eventually offering channels, such as minor league baseball or the WNBA. PBS has shown that it doesn’t mind offering a lot of its shows free on its app, so that could also be a channel.

There have been questions if Apple will ever offer Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, or Redbox Instant, which are all on Roku devices. I’m not so sure this will happen, as the viewership may not be enough to warrant working with these companies to offer these channels, or giving up something to get iTunes Store competitors on the device—plus, this could hurt prior strategic deals with Netflix and Hulu Plus.

I find the current state of the Apple TV to be exciting, as there’s a lot of potential, a little but of surprise, and enough unknown to allow us to made reasonable guesses. Personally, I hope Apple offers an API and App Store, so creative developers can make their own channels, but there are no signs that it would happen any time soon. Whatever Apple decides to add or change in the coming months will be exciting and unexpected, something lacking in the realm of iPhone and iPad rumors.

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