Yesterday one of my wife’s friends came over to visit, and we decided on a lark to watch the Oscars (which we haven’t done most years). Even though we pay for Cable and are avid TiVo users, due to a variety of circumstances we missed both the beginning of the Oscars and–more importantly–the entire finale, from best female actress through best picture. My frustration and indignation led to me to think systematically about the various ways that technology could and should have helped us avoid this problem. I decided to share my thoughts in the hope that better understanding technology’s current limitations will help inspire and illuminate the way to improving them. As usual, I welcome your feedback, comments, and additional thoughts on this topic.
The essence of the failure was this: the Oscars was content that we wanted to watch, we were entitled to watch, but were ultimately unable to watch. But specifically, here’s what went wrong that could and should have done better:
- Nothing alerted me that the Oscars was even on that day, nor did it prompt me to record it. I happened to return home early that day from the Plaxo ski trip, but might well have otherwise missed it completely. This is ridiculous given that the Oscars is a big cultural event in America, and that lots of people were planning to watch and record it. That “wisdom of the crowds” should have caused TiVo or someone to send me an email or otherwise prompt me to ask “Lots of people are planning to watch the Oscars–should I TiVo that for you?”
- As a result of not having scheduled the Oscars to record in advance, when we turned on the TV it turned out that the red carpet pre-show had started 15 minutes ago. Sadly, there was no way to go back and watch the 15 minutes we had missed. Normally TiVo buffers the last 30 minutes of live TV, but when you change channels, it wipes out the buffer, and in this case we were not already on the channel where the Oscars were being recorded. Yet clearly this content could and should be easily accessible, especially when it just happened–you could imagine a set of servers in the cloud buffering the last 30 minutes of each channel, and then providing a similar TiVo-like near-past rewind feature no matter which channel you happen to change to (this would be a lot easier than full on-demand since the last 30 minutes of all channels is a tiny subset of the total content on TV).
- Once we started watching TV and looked at the schedule, we told TiVo to record the Oscars, but elected to skip the subsequent Barbara Walters interview or whatever was scheduled to follow. Part way through watching in near-real-time, my wife and her friend decided to take a break and do something else (a luxury normally afforded by TiVo). When they came back to finish watching, we discovered to our horror that the Oscars had run 30+ minutes longer than scheduled, and thus we had missed the entire finale. We hadn’t scheduled anything to record after the Oscars, so TiVo in theory could have easily recorded this extra material, but we hadn’t told it to do so, and it didn’t know the program had run long, and its subsequent 30-minute buffer had passed over the finale hours ago, so we were sunk. There are multiple failures at work here:
- TiVo didn’t know that the Oscars would run long or that it was running long. My intent as a user was “record the Oscars in its entirety” but what actually happens is TiVo looks at the (static and always-out-of-date) program guide data and says “ok, I’ll record channel 123 from 5:30pm until 8:30pm and hope that does the trick”. Ideally TiVo should get updated program guide data on-the-fly when a program runs long, or else it should be able to detect that the current program has not yet ended and adjust its recording time appropriately. In absence of those capabilities, TiVo has a somewhat hackish solution of knowing which programs are “live broadcasts” and asking you “do you want to append extra recording time just in case?” when you go to record the show. We would have been saved if we’d chosen to do so, but that brings me to…
- We had no information that the Oscars was likely to run long. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Once we discovered our error, my wife’s friend remarked, “oh yeah, the Oscars always runs long”. Well, in that case, there should be ample historical data of the expected chance that a repeated live event like the Oscars should have extra time appended to the recording, and TiVo should be able to present that data to help its users make a more informed choice about whether to add additional recording time. If failure #1 was addressed, this whole issue would me moot, but in the interim, if TiVo is going to pass the buck to its users to decide when to add recording time, it should at least gather enough information to help the user make an informed choice.
- We weren’t able to go back and watch the TV we had missed, even though nothing else was being recorded during that time. Even though we hadn’t specifically told TiVo to record past the scheduled end of the Oscars, we also hadn’t told it to record anything else. So it was just sitting there, on the channel we wanted to record, doing nothing. Well, actually it was buffering more content, but only for 30 minutes, and only until it changed channels a few hours later to record some other pre-scheduled show. With hard drives as cheap as they are today, there’s no reason TiVo couldn’t have kept recording that same channel until it was asked to change channels. You could easily imagine an automatic overrun-prevention scheme where TiVo keeps recording say an extra hour after each scheduled show (unless it’s asked to change channels in the interim) and holds that in a separate, low-priority storage area (like the suggestions it records when extra space is free) that’s available to be retrieved at the end of a show (“The scheduled portion of this show has now ended, but would you like to keep watching?”), provided you watch that show soon after it was first recorded. In this case, it was only a few hours after the scheduled show had ended, so TiVo certainly would have had the room and ability to do this for us.
- Dismayed at our failure to properly record the Oscars finale, we hoped that online content delivery had matured to the point where we could just watch the part we had missed online. After all, this is a major event on a broadcast channel whose main point is to draw attention to the movie industry, so if there were ever TV content whose owners should be unconflicted about maximizing viewership in any form, this should be it. But again, here we failed. First of all, there was no way to go online without seeing all the results, thus ruining the suspense we were hoping to experience. One could easily imagine first asking users if they had seen the Oscars, and having a separate experience for those wanting to watch it for the first time vs. those merely wanting a summary or re-cap. But even despite that setback, there was no way to watch the finale online in its entirety. The official Oscars website did have full video of the acceptance speeches, which was certainly better than nothing, but we still missed the introductions, the buildup, and so on. It blows my mind that you still can’t go online and just watch the raw feed, even of a major event on a broadcast channel like ABC, even when the event happened just a few hours ago. In this case it seems hard to believe that the hold-up would be a question of whether the viewer is entitled to view this content (compared to, say, some HBO special or a feature-length movie), but even if it were, my cable company knows that I pay to receive ABC, and presumably has this information available digitally somewhere. Clips are nice, but ABC must have thought the Oscars show was worth watching in its entirety (since it broadcast the whole thing), so there should be some way to watch it that way online, especially soon after it aired (again, this is a simpler problem than archiving all historical TV footage for on-demand viewing). Of course, there is one answer here: I’m sure I could have found the full Oscars recording on bittorrent and downloaded it. How sad (if not unexpected) that the “pirates” are the closest ones to delivering the user experience that the content owners themselves should be striving for!
Finally, aside from just enabling me to passively consume this content I wanted, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of missed opportunity to make watching the Oscars a more compelling, consuming, and social experience. For instance, I had very little context about the films and nominees–which were expected to win? Who had won or been nominated before? Which were my friends’ favorites? In some cases, I didn’t even know which actors had been in which films, or how well those films had done (both in the box office and with critics). An online companion to the Oscars could have provided all of this information, and thus drawn me in much more deeply. And with a social dimension (virtually watching along with my friends and seeing their predictions and reactions), it could have been very compelling indeed. If such information was available Online, the broadcast certainly didn’t try to drive any attention there (not even a quick banner under the show saying “Find out more about all the nominees at Oscar.com”, at least not that I saw). And my guess is that whatever was online wasn’t nearly interactive enough or real-time enough for the kind of “follow along with the show and learn more as it unfolds” type of experience I’m imagining. And even if such an experience were built, my guess is it would only be real-time with the live broadcast. But there’s no reason it couldn’t prompt you to click when you’ve seen each award being presented (even if watching later on your TiVo) and only then revealing the details of how your pick compared to your friends and so on.
So in conclusion, I think there’s so much opportunity here to make TV content easier and more reliable to consume, and there’s even more opportunity to make it more interactive and social. I know I’m not the first person to realize this, but it still amazes me when you really think in detail about the current state of the art how many failures and opportunities there are right in front of us. As anyone who knows me is painfully aware, I’m a huge TiVo fan, but in this case TiVo let me down. It wasn’t entirely TiVo’s fault, of course, but the net result is the same. And in terms of making the TV experience more interactive and social, it seems like the first step is to get a bunch of smart Silicon Valley types embedded in the large cable companies, especially the ones that aren’t scared of the internet. Well, personally I’m feeling pretty good about that one. 😉