A large part of my career as a UX and UI designer has been spent designing content distribution interfaces, having worked on interfaces for Comcast, the BBC, Cablevision, ABC, NBC, CNN, Sony, and more. My goal as a designer was to craft interactions that connect content providers with the right audiences, and audiences with the right content for them. But after designing TV interfaces for years, it’s now painfully clear that cable and satellite TV’s value proposition as a product and service needs to be rethought.
Viewers are cutting the cord at alarming rates in favor of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Of those who do buy cable, more than half only do so because it’s bundled with the internet. One can easily imagine what happens when alternative connectivity solutions such as Google Fiber are readily available: There will be little reason to keep traditional paid TV service at all.
But cable companies have a secret weapon: a physical presence in people’s homes. While streaming services rely on convenient UI and exclusive content to lure viewers, cable companies could capitalize on their physical interfaces– the set-top boxes they rent to customers–to become a simple one-stop shop for all users’ viewing needs.
First, a little history on set-top boxes: In the past, set-top box interfaces provided a unique value, helping users find, schedule, and record relevant content amid a sea of choices. But now that viewers prefer on-demand shows to live broadcast, set-top boxes don’t have the value they once did. Cable companies are loath to kill them, given how profitable they are—people pay steep fees to people to rent them.
But imagine if the set-top box could do more. Imagine if it were a desirable object, integrating with, for instance, a voice-controlled soundbar. Or integrating a camera to enable video chat. Or fully embracing other platforms and operating systems, such as Android TV or Alexa. Or maybe it doesn’t look like a set-top box at all, but instead it’s some other kind of physical interface that combines cable, third-party streaming apps, sleek UI, and exclusive content. Many of the pain points associated with watching TV and movies would disappear.
Satellite and cable TV companies are making improvements in fits and starts. Comcast enables customers to watch TV through their Roku devices but has taken the unfortunate and retrograde (yet economically understandable—in the short term) decision to charge customers extra to do so. Several years ago, Comcast also took the bold step of enabling third-party apps, such as Netflix, to run on their X1 set-top box, as has Altice, which took over Cablevision in 2016, on their recently launched Altice One device. [Full disclosure: While at Schematic and my current agency, Possible, I worked on the design of both the X1 and Altice One interfaces.]
Another, more dramatic option: Kill off the set-top box altogether and make cable TV and satellite service just one more app in the app store—which is what audiences would likely appreciate most. That would likely eat into a company’s profits, at least in the short term. But there is clearly a need for a radical rethinking of the existing services.
Recently, the most notable innovation from a cable or satellite TV provider comes from AT&T, whose DirecTV Now provides an experience that allows for many of the features listed above. And its recently announced Watch service provides a DirecTV Now experience with an even more affordable bundle at a $15/month.
The rest of the cable and satellite TV industry would do well to follow suit, as it’s clear that the set-top box must evolve from an unavoidable-but-frustrating necessity to something people chose to purchase and find value in. Cable and satellite TV providers must radically evolve the set-top box—before their competition does it for them.
Jason Brush is global EVP experiences & innovation at Possible.