Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Guest Post: On Xbox One and Television

Your Critic's partner is usually silent on the blog; he prefers it that way.  In light of the recent Xbox One reveal announcement, however, he has asked for the platform to provide a guest post with some industry expertise, and I am more than happy to provide it.  And so, I am pleased to present a look at how Microsoft's approach to television and cable is somewhat misguided and out of date, by Matt Cox. 

Like many people, I tuned into the Xbox One unveiling yesterday with a great deal of anticipation. While personally I have preferred Sony consoles since the first PlayStation, I enjoy some good competition in the marketplace and I was hoping Microsoft would sell me on the idea of becoming a 2-console household in the coming generation.  Before the launch announcement, I had read some rumors about what Microsoft had in store for their new system: some sort of TV integration seemed likely, and possible restrictions on used games and the like were mentioned, but I hadn't followed it too closely. I wanted to hear it straight from the horse's mouth.

What I saw was a Microsoft that wanted to own the living room (a notion that has already been discussed well by Leigh Alexander at Gamastura), but that wasn't quite sure how to do it. Microsoft spent nearly half of their hour-long presentation talking about nothing but the Xbox One's TV capabilities. From the voice control to the channel guide to app integration, Microsoft clearly was very pleased with what they felt was their way forward.

I won't address the Xbox One's gaming potential and possibilities here, as there are plenty of other places you can find that and people far more qualified to discuss it. [Ed note: in fact I am hoping to write more about this here in this very space in the next week.]  I have worked in the TV broadcast/cable industry for 8 years though, so I believe I have something to contribute to the discussion there, in light of Microsoft's focus on it.

While Microsoft's stated goal of providing a single box that controls all your living room media is laudible, it felt poorly conceived to me. Part of me even wondered if they bothered talking to anyone who works in TV or studied how people today use TV while making it, because the Xbox One seemed to ignore that landscape completely.

When I talk to colleagues in the television industry, and when I hear what they're concerned about and focused on, there are three things that come up every time.

The first concern is time-shifted viewing. DVRs are fully mainstream now. The latest generation, with models such as the Tivo Premiere, the Dish Hopper, the DirectTV Genie, and the Comcast X1, are all speedy devices with large hard drives and intuitive UIs. Watching live TV is quickly becoming the niche realm of very targeted audiences, like live sports and "event" shows like The Voice, American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and so on. Broadcasters and cable channels are increasingly moving away from live Nielsen ratings and toward metrics like C3, which indicates how many viewers have watched a show up to three days after it first aired.

Meanwhile, there is no time-shifting capability on the Xbox One. It pretends that the only TV is live TV. Apps like ESPN fantasy football are focused around it. It lacks any sort of TV DVR capability. On top of all of that, it still requires a cable box in order to function. Why would anyone care that their Xbox One has a cable guide, if they already have one on the device it's tethered to? A device that can already do more than the Xbox One can?

The second big trend in television is Video On Demand. VOD has become the big buzzword both for networks and also for cable providers. When networks renew contracts with providers, you can be certain VOD is a big part of the discussion. Comcast (Xfinity) in particular has been very aggressive and forward-thinking in this area, developing apps for PC, phones, tablets, and the XBox 360 that act as a clearinghouse for VOD material available to subscribers. The Xbox One may very well support VOD again, but it won't be as concise. All of the new generation of cable boxes I mentioned earlier are designed to treat live programming, recorded programming, and VOD programming identically. I can search for Game of Thrones on a Comcast X1 or a Tivo Premiere and it will show me episodes I've recorded right alongside episodes available on demand. The Xbox One's guide, again, doesn't support this.

The final big trend in TV is social media. Personally, I'm not entirely sold on this one myself, but it is a tremendous focus of the television industry right now. Hashtags are burned into the corner of the screen as shows air. Networks vie for attention on social media services like GetGlue. Here, the Xbox One likely has an opening, but not much of one. Do users really want to have Twitter invade the side of their screen while watching The Walking Dead? What about family viewing? Microsoft's "one screen to rule them all" strategy seems to think that there is only ever one person watching TV at a time, rather than a couple, a family, or a room full of people. The "second screen" experience developed separately from a TV for a reason, and it's doubtful people want them suddenly smashed together.

Ultimately the question for the Xbox One's TV features that Microsoft has pushed so heavily is: "What does this provide that others don't do better?" The answer, at the moment, is nothing.  For the TV functions to work, the Xbox One must be connected to an existing cable box--and then simply duplicates most of that functionality.   It insists that the only relevant TV is live TV, when the audience for that is rapidly diminishing and all trendlines are moving away from it. The apps that share space with the programming are already present on countless smart TVs, tablets, and phones.
About the only unique feature at this point that Microsoft has left to cling to is voice control via Kinect. While it's difficult to predict how well that can work, consumer experience with voice control suggests that this isn't likely to take off any time soon.*  Ultimately, is the remote control still so hard to use?

At the end of the day I'm led to believe that the Xbox One is a console being released in 2013, but is being marketed with features that would appeal to television viewers in 2003. The television landscape is changing significantly, and Microsoft's latest console looks backward rather than forward.

*Ed. note: what he doesn't add, but I do, is, "My wife, the game critic, talks back to the TV a lot (a lot a lot) and voice-controlled TV in our home would likely be a nightmare.  Though a funny one."  Because yes.


  1. Thanks for the insight into the TV side. I've read a great deal of harsh criticism on the videogame side of the console, but not much else on the TV side of the equation. The expert opinion on Microsoft's non-videogame focus is appreciated.

  2. Yeah, that's pretty much how I felt. I'll save my gaming reaction for Kate's column, but I feel vindicated seeing an expert on the other part of the Minus One's features provide basically the same feedback. (It's somewhat ironic that Microsoft is releasing a backward-looking console with no backward compatibility, as we were so bluntly told recently ...)

  3. I assumed there would be some sort of cable card, as there is with the TiVo Premiere. No idea about other providers, but with Xfinity it provides the cable guide as well as VOD. (Though I agree that not having a DVR makes it useless as a TV-attached machine.)

  4. No, there is no cablecard functionality on the Xbox One. For starters, cablecards are only popularly used in the US, so it wouldn't work internationally. Microsoft skirted the issue by simply putting an HDMI input on the back that you route your cable box through. HDMI CEC codes lets the Xbox One pass commands (like changing channels) back through the line to the cable box... assuming that providers code their box to accept those signals.

    Also I understand it provides the guide as well as VOD, but the two are not connected. To use the example in the article, if I say "Xbox, show me Game of Thrones" to the Xbox One, it will just show it on the guide, or turn the channel if it's on right then. If I have the X1 cable box from Comcast, which also supports voice commands using an iOS app, I can say "Show me Game of Thrones", and it will display the next air date, any present recordings I have, and what episodes are available on VOD to watch right then. It's a far more intuitive experience than Microsoft is offering, and only requires the one box (the cable box), rather than two (the cable box + Xbox One)

  5. D'oh, no edit function. I meant to add to the example that the XBox One AS PRESENTED this week will function like that. If Microsoft has anything more elaborate or integrated planned, then they haven't indicated as such. (Though it is well-sourced now that there's no cablecard functionality.)