Why Apple's Tim Cook is wrong about TV

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It has been a while since someone at the top of a big global tech firm has said something ridiculous about TV. Thankfully, Apple's CEO Tim Cook has noticed this and taken one for the team by claiming TV is 'stuck back in the 70s'.

Ignoring the breath-taking pace of change in TV technology in recent years and perhaps sensing there was too much balanced and informed discussion about TV, he said this:

"TV is one of those things, that if we’re really honest, it’s stuck back in the 70s. When you go into your living room to watch your TV, or wherever it might be, it almost feels like you’re rewinding the clock and you’ve entered a time capsule and you’re going backwards. The interface is terrible… You watch things when they come on, unless you remember to record them."

Leaving aside the fact that Mr Cook appears not to have heard of on demand TV, let’s actually think about the 1970s for a moment. Back then, the furniture in my living room faced an analogue black and white TV set with a tiny screen and a huge arse, all of 3 channels to choose from, a dodgy signal when the weather was bad, no epg, no ability to record TV and we had to stand up and walk over to the set to change channels.

Today, my living room furniture – like most people’s – faces a large HD flatscreen TV with superb sound and 100s of channels to choose from. It is 100% digital and connected to a computerised hard drive (in my case Sky, but you can choose from Virgin Media, Freeview, Freesat, TalkTalk, BT TV…) that gives me unprecedented control over what I watch. I also have the ability to watch all sorts of TV content on other devices – largely delivered by the internet – or interact with the main set via other connected devices.

I’d say that’s quite a bit of change.

Of course, lots of things haven’t changed since the 1970s. For example, despite the enormous amount of technological development and new things we can spend our precious time with, people continue to spend far more of their leisure time watching TV than doing anything else; the vast majority of it live. It’s as true now as it was when I was worshipping Donny Osmond. So rather than assuming this is ‘stuck’, isn’t it better to ask why this might be? Maybe TV has a timeless quality that people like.

Are books stuck in the 1800s? Is cinema stuck in the 1950s? Is radio languishing in the inter-war years? No. The core way people enjoy all these things, and TV, has remained the same whilst technology has improved the experience. Mr Cook is missing the point, unless human behaviour is also stuck in the 1970s.

People get TV wrong when they allow their excitement about the potential of technology to eclipse their understanding of the fundamentals of human behaviour. TV is at its heart a social, communal activity. People generally like to watch it at the same time as other people because it’s more fun that way. It offers unrivalled simple, easy enjoyment. What people want is great quality content and the choice of how and when to watch. They have that now. They certainly didn’t have it in the 1970s.

Everything can be improved – few companies are better at improving things than Apple and I’d be very interested to see what they might do with the TV set – but this just sounds like yet another technologist thinking that more and more functionality will make TV viewers happier. Yet the only clamour for this change seems to be coming from tech companies who assume that the only thing people want is what they’re selling.

It isn’t about TV being stuck, it is about the fact that tech giants from Google to Microsoft have woken up to the fact that watching TV remains hugely popular and is extremely resilient. Everybody wants to be the gatekeeper in TV to cream off some of the value created by the people who invest in content and Apple is no different.

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