Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Joe Rosensteel

The future of the TV app is still unclear

Tim Cook, five years ago.

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+.

[Joe Rosensteel is a VFX artist, writer, and co-host of the Defocused and Unhelpful Suggestions podcasts.]

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