Why is TV viewing still so hard, even when you have cable?

Around the breakfast table this morning, sipping coffee with my visiting parents, the conversation turned to the new home theater system they installed last year. Specifically, how easy it was to press a wrong button and not know how to “go back” to what they were doing before and how hard it was some times to complete what they viewed as a basic functionality. For the sake of this post, my parents represent an average, non-techie user but one who has the money to buy technology and, even more importantly, appreciates technology. This is a large market, it’s not just a small niche, and I think we should listen to them.

So, after a quick chat, they stressed the need for an “instant reset” button, one that users can press when something goes wrong or an action they took led to an unexpected result. The “reset” takes the entire system,  cable/satellite box, home theater amplifier/receiver and the TV screen, to a certain, known and predictable state, one where, say, the screen is on, the last channel is on the screen and the volume is at the average of the last hour. A state where it is easier for the user to engage with the system. Digging a bit deeper, I asked my parents what they really need in a system. These five requirements are it:

  1. On/Off for screen, sound and content.
  2. Change TV channels. sequentially and by entering a number.
  3. Listen to the radio, which is part of the home theater receiver.
  4. Record a show for later viewing.
  5. Listen to a music CD.
A trio of remotes: cable, TV and a home theater receiver.

A trio of remotes: cable, TV and a home theater receiver.

We can all agree that these requirements represent basic functionality. So take a look at the photo on the right: these are the tools that users are given. Three separate remotes, each with its own power switch, volume control and channel up/down. All have a number pad. with which one does a user skip to the channel they want to see? All have the play/record/stop buttons, with which does a user record a show? With which do you play a CD? And where is the radio function, in the receiver or somewhere in the cable lineup? Most importantly: which remote, if any, rules them all?

Visually, all remotes are a shade of gray, have small buttons in more shades of gray, which makes it challenging to find the important buttons. Even the power button, though at the top for all, is either on the left, right or center. There are groupings of buttons and others that lead to on-screen menus with more options.

There have been attempts to create universal, simple remotes. Honestly, from the ones I’ve seen, their layout is just as confusing, they don’t look easier to use, and they might be a hassle to set up. Not to mention having one system decide not to work with the universal remote or having a necessary functionality not supported by the universal remote.

I have written before about how the content creators, from ESPN to HBO, need to do more to allow cordcutters to access their programming. Yet I have failed to realize that every content provider, with their own, dedicated viewing app, is just creating more chaos for viewers. Right now, my family uses the ESPN app (via Google’s wonderful Chromecast) for sports, the Fox app for more sports, our OTA antenna for local broadcasts, the Netflix app for more entertainment, YouTube for a few extras, and the list goes on. To say that it is confusing is an understatement. To a user like my parents it’s downright crazy. The cable companies might be able to relax a bit: it’s hard to believe that the majority of viewers will be willing to undergo the hassle of multiple interfaces and technologies that cordcutting requires.

At the end of the discussion my mom said that cars were the greatest invention. Why? Because you could get into any car and instantly understand how to make it work, for every basic task. Video consumption in general, and home theater systems in particular, are still far away from that ideal.

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