November 8, 2014

Cable Boxes are Screwing Independent Filmmakers. Google to the Rescue?

Google Nexus Player
Independent filmmakers are screwed until cable boxes stop sucking — or are replaced. Will Google's second try at a set-top box make independent films easier to discover — and pay for?

"Okay Google, save independent film."

The Problem

As a website-running nerd and a filmmaker well-versed in cameras and software, I can be considered a power user of pretty much anything with a screen or buttons. The only piece of technology I can't use well? My cable box. And that's because there is no way to use it well. 

For indies, we don't expect our movies to be in the regular rotation on the cable channels — the kind of film that happens to be on one of the low-numbered, popular channels that viewers regularly flip past and end up watching. Customers have to find indie movies, because they won't already be playing when they turn on the TV, unless they have their cable box set to turn on to a channel like IFC or Sundance. 

Time Warner Cable guide

But this is what it looks like to find something on a cable box: recently I was trying to check out the TV show Orphan Black to see what all the hype is about. So I go to my On Demand channel ("conveniently" located at channel 1,000) to find it. But it turns out you can't just go to your On Demand channel to find most content, because there are several different On Demand channels categorized with labels like "Primetime," "Entertainment," "Cutting Edge," and the pièce de résistance, "Nature & Kldge." Other than the channel that uses the mystery abbreviation "Kldge," whatever the hell that is, Orphan Black could be in any of these subchannels, right? It is entertainment, primetime, and cutting edge. But it will only show up in one. Since there's no way of knowing which, I turn to the (very slow, character-by-character) search function. What came up (after about ten seconds of load time)? Nothing. Because it turns out that the show, when it broadcasts, is listed as "Orphan Black," but in the On Demand listings it is called "Orphan Blk." It would have been many times easier for me, as a cable customer, to go to BitTorrent and download it illegally than it would be for me to find the damn thing on the actually legal service that I'm paying three figures a month for. 

So, let's recap: if someone's heard of your film, in order to actually find it on their cable box, they must: 1) know they have On Demand in the first place, 2) know where to find On Demand, 3) know which particular On Demand channel to search on, 4) know to search for several abbreviated versions of the title if they don't find it initially, and 5) remember their PIN code to make the purchase, if they ever set it up in first place, and if they didn't, know the default PIN code. Going through those steps, you go from 75% to 50% to 25% to 10% to 5% of the customers. By the time you narrow down the customer base to people who fit all of those criteria, you've already lost most of your potential viewers.

 The uselessness of cable boxes affects indies even more than the majors.

So what does this have to do with indies? Doesn't this general crapfest affect all content equally? No. Big studio movies get the coveted promotional spots that run in a loop when you go to the On-Demand channel. They are the ones listed as "featured." Our content is rarely going to be at the top of any of the listings, unless our film starts with a number or an "A," and even then, some are starting to say that the practice of beta-stacking is dead (or dying). Our content is much harder to find than that of majors, and since as I explained it's already hard enough to find anything on cable boxes, the uselessness of cable boxes affects indies even more than the majors. This is killing our opportunity to get someone to find, pay for, and watch our movies. And that's killing our careers.

Before you say, "I cut the cord months ago, and now I just watch everything on Netflix so cable companies don't matter anymore," take a look at these charts:

Cable Industry chart
Credit: NCTA

TV remains the preferred device to watch content on for 92% of consumers (source). And as big as Netflix and Hulu are, with 42 million combined subscribers, the cable networks on these charts add up to more than twice that number. So even if we are marketing our films on direct-to-fan platforms like VHX, Vimeo On Demand, and many others, we need to find a way to tap into this much larger customer base, or at least the devices they watch their content on, if we're going to forge sustainable careers.

The Solution?

What indies need is a universal search box on all TVs that draws from multiple catalogs at once. Customers should be able to type, or say, the name of our film and find it immediately.

Thankfully, we are living in a time when everything is being disrupted by technological advances. The cable box's days are numbered, or at least the cable box as we know it, given over-the-top viewership is undeniably on the rise. The problem with over-the-top solutions like Apple TV, however — as I have written before (good lord, that was six years ago?) — is that each channel is sequestered to its own library. You have to browse the catalogs of Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu completely separately on an Apple TV, not to mention that the cable box is a separate, well, box. This favors the more ubiquitous titles that are available on multiple platforms (you are more likely to watch something that is easy to find; you are less likely to watch something that is hard to find). What indies need is a universal search box on all TVs that draws from multiple catalogs at once. Customers should be able to type, or say, the name of our film and find it immediately. And this search should be platform agnostic —whether it's on your cable box or set-top box, and whether it's on iTunes, Netflix, VHX, Vimeo on Demand, or an even smaller platform. The way it is currently, regardless of which device consumers are using — an Apple TV, game console, Roku, or media PC — the vast majority of them are not going to jump through the hoops of downloading a file and figuring out how to open it on their TV, as opposed to just clicking on a convenient option that is native to their device.

Who is going to solve this problem? Apple TV is not an open ecosystem, and I don't have high hopes for indies ever finding an easy route to the big screen there (other than being in iTunes, or using a sidedoor like AirPlay (which introduces more user friction, like getting your laptop connected and then dealing with stuttery playback)). Because it's my belief that the pain point for indies at present is the search box, my hopes are therefore pinned on the search giant, Google. The problem is, they've already failed at this before.

Android TV Search

Google reboots its TV

When Google announced their first foray into TV four years ago, I wrote, optimistically, "Google TV is what independent filmmakers have been waiting for." In retrospect, I couldn't have been more wrong, because in turned out no one was waiting for Google TV — or, at least, no one was buying it. Google tried again with their Roku-esque dongle Chromecast, but that was never going to disrupt the industry for mainstream viewers, except perhaps by lowering the price of entry. Thus the quest continues for someone to replace cable boxes that, in an age of multi-touch, voice-activated operating systems, feel ancient and kludgy (most of them are made by companies that you last encountered when you got your first graphing calculator — and it feels like they're using the same processors and GUIs in these cable boxes as they were in the TI-81). Microsoft is trying with the Xbox (which unfortunately has to resort to IR-blasting), Apple has long had a rumored next-gen TV product in the works, and now Google is trying again with its new Nexus Player, which runs the latest version of Android TV. Similar to how Google launches unbranded Nexus phones as an example of best practices for Android phones, the Nexus Player is an unbranded example of what other manufacturers can do with Android TV. Here's a quick look from The Verge:

To this video I would add that we need "more independent films." When movies on indie platforms are available on your set-top box right alongside films from the giants, that creates something closer to an even playing field. Will the Google Nexus Player, which is just another method for Google to establish its Android TV operating system to encourage manufacturers to integrate it into more Smart TVs, have this kind of impact? I think it could, because when the operating system is powering over-the-top content and, potentially, the cable guide, that's when the search box becomes the killer feature (Microsoft is trying this with the Xbox but, again, IR blaster "integration" = death). Android is much more open than iOS and, even though Vimeo (for example) has an Apple TV channel, there's no universal search that will lead you to a Vimeo On Demand title.

I've been proven wrong before by believing in Google, but their product strategy is, for better or for worse, to launch multiple versions of everything and find out which one worksGoogle Wave failed, but now Google Inbox is a more realistic and successful take on rethinking email. Google TV failed, but now perhaps the Nexus Player and Android TV can succeed. Because no matter how independent we want to be, we need our art to be consumable on the devices and platforms millions of people use every day. In fact, our only chance of being independent — financially — depends on it. And for our art to be consumable it first needs to be findable. Here's to hoping with the "Search movies, TV, and more" functionality, Google will help even the playing field.     

Your Comment

11 Comments

This is probably the best post ive ever read on nfs. This is si true and well thought out.

November 8, 2014 at 6:06PM, Edited November 8, 6:06PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1615

Supposively the google nexus tv is not qiite there yet. It has video issues but soon well get there. Having a game controller is smart. Im curious to see what apple has up their sleave.

November 8, 2014 at 6:23PM

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Ed David
Director of Photography
1615

Thanks, Ed -- it's definitely rough, and they do a good job of showing that in the video. We're going to reach out to some of the direct-to-fan platforms we've profiled and get their comments on what they think of Android TV and what their plans are.

November 8, 2014 at 8:19PM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Great article, Ryan.

The one thing that concerns me is that the cable companies that also act as ISPs will throttle down the bandwidth from streaming video services. I believe that's been one of the issues surrounding net neutrality.

However, the fact is that ISPs run their cable lines and fiber optic lines over public land, so the public should have some say in the speed and availability of streaming video over those lines.

I think that the BitTorrent protocol offsets a lot of the burdensome bandwidth issues when it comes to streaming video to large numbers of users. It's a form of distribute computing, and companies such as Azureus, Blizzard Entertainment, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have used that protocol.

November 8, 2014 at 6:33PM

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Glenn Bossik
Videographer
545

Agreed, the device/platform will certainly matter a whole lot less if net neutrality, um, neuters the direct-to-fan options. Which would be a nightmare.

November 8, 2014 at 8:25PM

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Personally, I've found using i-tunes through Apple TV to be the best/easiest solution for streaming indies. But to each his own. I've found this to be pretty useful as a search tool, and you can tweak the tomatometer or release date etc... http://www.rottentomatoes.com/browse/dvd-all/

November 8, 2014 at 7:56PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1530

Apple TV and Roku boxes work just fine for finding Indie films and traditional mainstream films as long as you have a subscription to Netflix, Hulu, and use the on demand streaming features of Apple TV and Amazon. Maybe Google will come up with something better someday but I'm very satisfied with Apple TV and a smart TV that has Amazon Prime.

November 9, 2014 at 12:22AM

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Ian Holmes
Professor
76

Cable has the ability to be rigid. It has for so long and I think we all thought at first that the playing field would narrow, which it has. Channels like HBO and others going streaming only and making their own ecosystem. The roku 3 is alot closer to your idea than you may have experienced. They have amovies section that Im pretty sure is cross account, its clunky but usable. However until the designers at roku or who makes their boxes gets into the cable industry the box that remains in most peoples homes is what they got.
Google should be able to do this, searching algorithms is their thing. But they usually run before they can walk so every outing of this has been met with huge issues.

November 9, 2014 at 5:43PM

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Chris Hackett
Director, Director of Photography, Writer
868

Broadcast television will die sooner rather than later. Id give it TOPS 10 years. What I think will happen is major networks will create their very own apps and web streaming websites. It will be user subscribed similar to netflix and hulu. The channels arent winning when stuck with cable providers as are the viewers. The viewers are forced into channel package deals that they dont want. If you want espn you have to pay a crazy amount and get 30 other channels you may never use. The network now is struggling to get viewers because viewers arent willing to fish out the ridiculously high price tag The networks are in a similar scenario as we are when it comes to cable providers, stuck in a contract with cable providers with no means of there own way. The networks will eventually get on board with streaming apps and such as it becomes cheaper to create apps. Devices like smart tv's and apple tv will jump on the bandwagon creating app stores for networks. I dont doubt the feature will be fully optimized to our liking and give us a new look at television.

November 10, 2014 at 8:53AM

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Caleb Rasak
Camera Operator / AC
348

Call me cynical, but as long as there's money involved, there won't be a truly agnostic search. Google will eventually (if they haven't already) start selling adword spots for featured movies and shows, and likely figuring out a way to promote Google Play stuff over the other services. (Indeed, perhaps that explains some of the weird search results noted in the video.)

November 11, 2014 at 10:59AM

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We're not going to get around the problem of multiple providers of content. The hardware to build the TV's and the connected devices will always be in the hands of giant companies who have a interest in protecting their own selling environment. Google Play will be no different in this way.

Talk has died down now, but the best bet is still second screen as a universal remote. Use a tablet and a service like GoWatchIt to find where the content lives, and then play through the TV app.

November 11, 2014 at 11:48AM

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Jason Sondhi
Curator @Vimeo // Founder @Shortoftheweek
81

Have you tried Tivo? Thinking about this it appears that you can only get access to whatever catalog of media is available from the source(s) you are connected with. This could be via your cable, ISP, or internet and even OTA (over the air) methods.
Now imagine a box whereby you have several pipes coming into it. Verizon FIOS, Brighthouse, Comcast, etc., and someone on Kickstarter of in Silicon Valley programs code into this box whereby anything you search for is searched on all the different pipes or connections. Then by pressing a button the remote or clicking a link on the tablet, you get access. Yes, it wouldn't be affordable to some people but if it caught on, who knows. I could see the cable companies working together to provide this capability and offer the box as well. Some lucky developer could stand to make a huge sum of money on this idea. Who wants to start? ;)

November 12, 2014 at 4:58PM

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