Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Joe Rosensteel

Searching for a better guide: Live TV in the age of streaming

As a so-called elder millennial, I remember our 19″ Zenith television, with an actual clicker, that sat in the oak armoire in the family room. It would display whatever happened to be broadcast, and that was it. You could buy a TV Guide from the grocery store, and it would have a printed listing of what would be on TV and when, so people would plan to watch a channel at a certain time or set their VCR to record something on tape.

Then we had cable, and eventually a cable channel that just showed a programming guide that slowly scrolled through all the channels. Eventually, we got an interactive programming guide, where you could click to move around in a grid of channels. Finally came the ability to set a DVR recording from the grid.1 The important thing is that we offloaded the burden of managing live TV viewing to computers.

We’ve lost some of that simplicity because of the innovations in on-demand TV. On-demand TV is great, and it lets us live our lives unencumbered by any viewing schedule. However, there are still live events, news, and other situations where I prefer to leave the decision-making up to network programmers while folding laundry.

“Live” TV is rarely live, but it is linear in that there are discrete blocks of programming, TV or movies, arranged sequentially. Think of it more like a playlist, and that playlist is linked to a specific point in time and can be compared with other playlists.2

But sometimes, the channels aren’t quite linear. Some let you restart a show that’s already in progress—making the linear channel more like a showcase for on-demand video content. You might also record an upcoming program or receive a notification that an event is happening live.

In the world of streaming TV, even “traditional” TV is complicated.

Live on Fire

The gateway to Amazon’s live TV interface.

Amazon recently revamped the Fire TV’s Live TV viewing. While this latest Fire TV update made a host of awful additions to the Fire TV home screen, Amazon’s live TV interface revision is interesting, and something Apple could learn from.

To access the new Live TV view on Amazon Fire TV, you go to the top row of the (very bad) home screen. Once you select Live, you’ll see a Guide button, a few recently watched or favorite programs, and some suggestions for live programming. The guide button opens a very traditional interactive guide view. The guide is populated based on which apps on the Fire TV offer live TV integration. (All recently updated Fire TVs will already have IMDb TV and Fire TV News synergistically integrated.)

The Menu button on the Fire TV remote will bring up options to add the currently selected channel to your Favorites, Add Channels, Manage Channels, and More Info. Previews are displayed of what’s on a channel if you hover over it. If you’re already watching something and looking through the guide, that channel’s content will appear in a picture-in-picture box. Add Channels isn’t really about adding channels—it’s a list of apps available on the Fire TV store that offer guide integration.

Unfortunately, everything in the guide’s grid view is categorized by what app it’s in, which makes it feel more like several guide views were glued together. It isn’t sorted based on content type (for example, all the news offerings from all the services in one spot)—for that you’d need to look at the main “Live” view of the home screen, not the guide view. Most importantly, it doesn’t do anything with duplicate channels offered by different apps.

(If you favorite America’s Test Kitchen on Pluto, it’s different from favoriting that channel under IMDb TV. Why? Because these are ad-supported offerings—so it matters very much which service your eyeballs are going to.)

Amazon’s guide mostly suffers because it lacks integration with cloud DVR services. You need to use the guide available inside of each of those discrete apps for those. The same goes for notifications about upcoming programs. There is no convenient way to jump between the Fire TV guide, or live view, to the streaming app’s version of that guide. So you need to back out and navigate to the thing you’re already looking at.

Apple, far from the tree

All those pros and cons for an integrated guide sure sound tough to manage, don’t they? Well, what if you didn’t do anything at all to manage that? Welcome to Apple’s TV app!

The TV app does offer a row of live news channels, it’s not filtered by what you’re subscribed to, drastically reducing its utility. Instead, the crown jewel of live TV in the Apple TV app is found in the Sports tab.

There are many sports.

The Sports tab lists upcoming events organized by sport. But no attempt is made to filter results based on compatible subscriptions. Presumably, the logic is that if you see a game you want to watch, click through on it, see that it requires ESPN+, then you’ll subscribe to ESPN+ and not just say, “Why the hell are you showing me something I can’t watch?”

Plenty of room for improvement

While Amazon could certainly do a better job of cleaning up their unified view to be more fully-featured and useful, it’s an impressive attempt all the same.

Apple, meanwhile, has really fallen behind. The TV app itself has done a decent job of presenting itself as a catalog of individual on-demand programs (except for Netflix!) and live sports. Still, the last few years have resulted in an explosion of apps offering live, linear TV channels—and Apple needs to react.

Certainly, if the Fire TV interface is any guide3, Apple has an opportunity to create a better, more unified experience for presenting all the live TV options a user currently has access to.

Sometimes you just need to put something on while you fold laundry.

  1. To take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. “Give me five bees to a quarter,” you’d say. Now where were we… 
  2. Some services (like Sling, YouTube TV, and others) encapsulate the entirety of the linear cable TV experience into an app. But there are also many free streaming-only linear TV services supported by ads, like Pluto TV and Tubi. And some on-demand services (Peacock, Paramount+) also offer linear channels. 
  3. Jason put that in—don’t blame Joe. 

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

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