Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Joe Rosensteel

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.

What a mess! But it turns out that Apple does provide third party developers with the ability to tag a tier identifier to the indexed content that Universal Search, and Siri, ingest. It’s just that these developers aren’t doing it, and Apple doesn’t seem to care. Instead, it’s up to me—the guy paying these mega-companies money every month—to individually verify whether or not a movie is available.

Something’s very wrong with that system.

The bait and switch

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.

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

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