One of the banner features of Apple TV and tvOS, is the ability to use Siri to get to what you want without having to remember which app it’s in, or where it is. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always lived up to that sales pitch. But as of the latest version of tvOS, it’s gotten a lot better.
Apple has slowly tweaked accuracy over the years (requests for “The Thing” now sensibly display The Thing you expect, and not Fantastic Four movies.) It was also a pain that if you clicked/tapped on a result there was no way to get back to those search results if that item didn’t turn out to be what you wanted. Now you can!
The results pages were have also been cleaned up a little, to make those first few options as relevant as possible. It’s less optimal if you stay on the page too long, because tvOS will start playing a trailer in the top two-thirds of the screen.…
This new development is bad for a few reasons, starting with the fact that the Up Next list was the only part of the TV app interface that a user could really customize or control to plan their viewing experience—everything from being aware of the latest episode popping up online, to deciding you weren’t that interested in a show any longer. That personalization is important because the act of viewing TV is a personal experience in your living room.
This change pushes that off of the screen so the information isn’t even available to them at a glance without moving the interface down. This is another hostile layer, because remember that if you don’t subscribe to Apple TV+, the app will load with a splash screen telling you to subscribe to Apple TV+, and when that is dismissed it will deposit you on the Apple TV+ tab of the Apple TV app interface which you need to navigate away from to Watch Now. Now you need to go down, too. Obviously, Apple TV+ subscribers have fewer layers to get through because they don’t need the sales pitch, but they’re still getting the other shows pitched to them whether they like it or not.
What is featured?
The editorial layer Apple adds to their interfaces, across all their operating systems and services, leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t reject efforts to be told about other content that exists outside of my personal bubble—but what Apple provides is usually irrelevant to me, either because I don’t want to watch it or because I’ve already seen it!
Right now, for example, the list of titles in the Featured row that takes up most of this interface is almost entirely made up of things I’ve already seen. Some of them are, in fact, in the Up Next view right below it—but the view of the title in the “Featured” row is the same view everyone gets, whether or not they’ve ever seen the show. For shows that I’m watching, it doesn’t even offer me my next episode. There’s literally no personalization.
If Apple has a list of titles they want in Featured and a list of titles they want in Up Next, am I to believe that they lack the raw computing horsepower to remove duplicates from those lists? Or to override the unpersonalized button with a more personalized one?
How does any of this benefit me as a user? You’re going to take the brave, bold stance of recommending “Ted Lasso”—a show I’ve seen all of and which isn’t going to a have third season until some indeterminate time next year, maybe? What brain trust thought that the cultural zeitgeist around Ted Lasso was so strong right now in November of 2022 that it merited a featured position?
For a long time, the Watch Now page has had a very, very, very bad For You row. Whatever logic is running behind the scenes seems to just make random associations out of a grab bag of anything I’ve ever seen. To solve this problem, as Apple often does in the Apple TV interface, they just push it further down. It’s now the 12th row down on the Watch Now screen, effectively about 4 “pages” of stuff away from the top.
That means that we’ve got Featured taking up that first page, the top sliver of the second page being Up Next, and then a bunch of other suggestions for things that some human being picked out of a hat for all users to see. It can be anything from sports, to suggestions for other things I can pay for, to Apple TV content (which is promoted in a thousand other places) and then the height of machine learning has a list of shows and movies I might like which starts with the critically panned TV adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Again, what benefit is there to browsing any of this material that has been put together without care or respect for me? If you want to take control of my TV from me, then it better be for a good reason, and not just because you’re oblivious to what I want.
What’s good for… Apple?
What this really comes down to is respect. I do not feel respected as a customer when I see my Apple TV autoplaying an ad for Abbott Elementary in general when it knows exactly which episode is next for me in the series.
If Apple wants to say that the Apple TV device, and the Apple TV app, are worth the money because they provide a premium experience, then they can’t keep sliding down into the same mediocre moves as any other platform owner.
The Apple TV in my living room isn’t Apple’s electronic billboard. If I wanted to own one of those, I’d have saved some money and just bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Since their mythic inception, forged in the crucible of Ron Johnson and Steve Jobs and their hippie-dippy retail ideas, the Apple Store has always been an anti-store. It’s not your daddy’s CompUSA! It’s not your grandma’s RadioShack! The Apple Store was a place to chill with your friends, while you looked at all the weird stuff no one was buying until iPods were popular, and then the iPhone.
A number of architectural revisions have occurred since then, and technical reorganizations have reshaped the shop. But the stubborn persistence to be unlike other retailers, often to the point of frustration, remains the same.
By my count, there are three ways to behave at the Apple Store as a customer seeking to buy something:
You approach an Apple Store employee and tell them you want to purchase something.
You approach an Apple Store employee and tell them you want to pick up something you ordered already.
When Apple TV’s ‘Universal Search’ is a black hole
I have to search for a lot of movies to watch on my Apple TV because I have a movie podcast. If a movie is located within a service that I’m already paying for, then I’d like to get that. I don’t want to browse all of the services, and I don’t use websites that claim to have a complete catalog of where movies are available because that’s not always true, and they also can’t take into account movies that I have already paid for in my library.
It’s not an easy problem to solve, but Apple at least seemed interested in solving it when they introduced Universal Search for Apple TV. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t seem so interested in this problem anymore—and Universal Search has become increasingly useless and frustrating.
Play me a movie, please?
Recently, I asked Siri to display “Fight Club,” and was presented with a button to start watching it right away in Prime Video. So easy!
Unfortunately, when it started playing, it was a very compressed, blocky stream, and I could immediately tell something was amiss. I pressed the back button and discovered that what I had clicked on was actually “Popular Movies and TV — Free with ads” within Prime Video. In other words, Amazon had embedded its ad-supported IMDb TV service inside of Prime Video, with very little to differentiate the two very different presentations.
Let’s try another example: David Lynch’s 1984 “Dune.” Universal Search said I could watch it on Hulu, but it’s not really available on Hulu.
Because of Apple’s infamous App Store rules, Hulu can’t actually tell me what I’m missing. Searching within the Hulu app on my iPhone will show “Dune,” which is why it’s being indexed for universal search… but tapping on it for more info only generates this error message: “Sorry, but your subscription doesn’t include that movie. You can manage your subscription from your account page.”
Next to Hulu in my “Dune” search results is the button to get the Starz app—allowing me to deduce that perhaps I need to add Starz to Hulu for an extra $9/month, or subscribe to Starz through Apple for $9/month. But what’s the point in Universal Search if it leaves room for this ambiguity?
This happens again and again. Services like Prime Video and Hulu include an array of films and TV shows in their search indexes, when they’re not really available on those services… but on extensions to those services that might offer degraded quality or an upsell to a product I’m not buying.
Of course, even if a developer correctly labels their video tiers, it wouldn’t address issues such as mixing low-quality ad-supported streams with paid streams, meaning there’s no way to distinguish what kind of viewing experience one can expect until you click on a tile in Universal Search and start playback.
And it’s hard to imagine that this inaccurate data is really just there by mistake. It’s far more likely that this is an attempt to drive unsuspecting users into viewing their video ads, or inducing them to sign up for their add-on services (that can’t actually even be referenced on Apple’s platforms). Why not degrade the user experience a little bit in exchange for bumping up the quarterly numbers a little bit?
But in fairness, it’s also possible that some of these cases are simply caused by underfunded tech staffs at billion-dollar companies where money is spent wildly on the next big swords-and-sorcery streaming series but not on the developer who has to maintain an AppleTV app and interact with a huge back-end media database. That poor developer at Amazon who decided to cram IMDb TV listings into Prime Video might have only had the best of intentions. (But probably not.)
Beyond ads, there are the issues of variable quality. Is a film in 4K, HDR, HD, or standard def? Is the streaming service buttery smooth, or chunky Paramount+? Is the film edited, or presented in an alternate cut? If a film exists on several services, it’s incumbent on Apple’s interface to give us more information so that we can pick the version of the film we actually want to see.
It’s like a special, pay-for-access library… where some of the books are missing, others chopped up, random pages might be glued together, some have water damage, and on a bunch, the interior pages have been replaced with a pop-up diorama indicating that the regular version of the book is also available—but the pop-up book is sadly not allowed to tell you where it’s located.
The librarian shouldn’t shrug and say it’s up to the book publishers to put properly printed books and place them on the right shelves, and not print empty books with coupons to buy the real book in a nearby bookstore. It’s the job of the librarian to curate their collection and make sure that their books are readable and available, and to direct their patrons to right where they want to go.
I appreciate Apple’s desire to present users with simple choices. Simplicity is good. But in this case, it has led to a bizarre guessing game about what will happen if I pick one app over another. It calls into question the accuracy of Apple’s search results.
In other words, it all comes back to Apple. Universal Search is Apple’s product. It’s up to Apple to verify that their search results are the best results for their users—and right now, Apple is failing.
It’s been five years since Apple announced the TV app—auspiciously on the same day it unveiled the first-generation Touch Bar MacBook Pros. A year earlier, Tim Cook first declared that “the future of TV is apps,” but in short order Apple realized that the future wasn’t hunting for different TV shows and movies across a half-dozen different apps, all with completely different navigation experiences.
So in came the TV app. Apple was so confident about it, the company changed the behavior of its own remote control so that the home-screen button no longer went to a home screen full of apps, and instead just launched the TV app.
Unfortunately, the TV app still hasn’t replaced the home screen—in part because it still doesn’t represent all the content that is available on Apple’s devices. Some wheeling and dealing brought Amazon’s Prime Video app into the fold, but Netflix remains separate—probably forever. (Netflix knows that its subscribers will open up its app to browse and watch something, and sees only disadvantages in mixing its content in with other services and providing Apple with valuable viewing data.)
The TV app experience is also subpar. It’s largely presenting links to other apps, meaning the other apps need to properly handle your login status and play back video. I still periodically run into dead-ends, where an app just dumps me onto its home screen rather than playing what I selected. But more often than not, you’ll eventually get to the video you selected, after your TV flickers and makes you choose a user profile (because most of these apps don’t integrate with tvOS’s user profiles system).
There are also occasions where these linkages just completely break. Recently, HBO Max stopped being integrated with my TV app and wouldn’t display anything in the Up Next area, or show any suggestions. It turns out that HBO Max had been disabled in Settings, but I don’t recall doing that. It seems to have just happened. And what’s worse, I only figured this out by digging down several levels in the Settings app. (It’s also a completely different path from how the same authorization handled on iOS.)
Speaking of inconsistencies, the TV app provides information about suggested programming based on what apps you have installed on your device. If you have apps on one device and not another, the TV app will make different suggestions.
Then there’s the inconsistency of video playback across apps. Apple’s fancy jog-wheel-like ring on the new Apple TV remote hasn’t been adopted by most of Apple TV apps five months after it was made available. The TV App has unified content on the Apple TV, sort of, but playing back, pausing, and scrubbing through your video will be different on almost every app.
To get around a lot of these app issues, Apple took a page out of Amazon’s playbook and announced Apple TV Channels in 2019. (“The future of TV is one app!” Tim Cook didn’t declare.) A provider could elect to not build an app at all, and instead supply Apple with video and data that would populate the TV app for anyone subscribed. All payment processing and everything else would be handled by Apple. This is theoretically a way to offer a better experience to subscribers if the content provider—let’s say Paramount+ (née CBS All Access)—happens to be pretty terrible at building apps, and isn’t really a destination for browsing.
It’s not a bad idea, but Apple TV Channels hasn’t replaced apps. Every content provider with an Apple TV Channels subscription still maintains a separate app, and HBO abandoned ship when it launched HBO Max. Also if you choose to use an app, you’ll still see offers to subscribe via Channels inside of the TV app alongside the material you already have access to. To Apple, the app and the channel are separate products.
Despite swimming in an ocean of data, the TV app’s suggestions are often for things that are for a broad audience rather than being targeted to individual tastes—and often feature content you’ve already watched. This is like opening up a TV Guide, or a newspaper, not like a 21st century app for managing your TV viewing experience.
That brings us to the one Apple TV Channel that has some, shall we say, special privileges: Apple TV+. Apple’s own streaming service was announced at the same event as Apple TV Channels. I mentioned earlier that the TV app is very sensitive about what you do and don’t have installed. But after my Apple TV+ subscription lapsed the other day, more than half of the TV app is still guiding me toward content available on Apple’s service.
After five years, it’s a letdown to have this universal menu of offerings not be universal, not accurately represent what’s available to the user, provide links to inconsistent and unreliable apps, and be skewed by promotion of for Apple TV+. It’s enough to make you wonder why any video provider would want to participate in an app that buries its best content under a giant carousel of buttons devoted to promoting “The Line,” coming November 19 to Apple TV+.