TV

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

Sitting back and relaxing with a favorite movie or TV series is a luxury we can all appreciate. High-end picture and sound are the ideal, but getting to the opening credits can be an experience in and of itself. If we own the content, popping in a Blu-ray is a painless endeavor. Doing the same with a streaming service should be just as painless. That’s not always true, however.

 

When the Amazon series Homecoming was released, my wife and I sat down, turned on our home theater, and opened up the Amazon Prime Video app on the TV to start watching. Since the show was new, and Amazon was promoting it heavily, it was right at the top of the menu. No searching necessary. It was a pretty straightforward experience—at least for a few minutes. I knew from advertisements that Homecoming was offered in 4K, but what we were watching was most definitely

1080p. I found that, unlike Netflix, which automatically shows the best level of content available that your home setup can handle, with Amazon you need to actively search out the UHD version.

 

You’d think it would be as easy as typing in “Homecoming UHD 4K” or something similar. You’d be wrong. That search term, in fact, comes up with no hits. Zero. A show produced by the service itself, heavily marketed with billboards (around the Los Angeles area at least), its stars 

The Trials & Tribulations of Amazon Streaming

frequenting late-night talk shows, nominated for multiple awards—and the app search engine is unaware a 4K version exists. In order to find it, I had to scroll down their category listings until I found “Original Series in 4K Ultra HD.” I would have expected that option to be at or near the top, instead of a few scrolls below the fold.

 

I encountered similar problems when I searched for past seasons of The Expanse, a fantastic adaptation of the book series that Amazon recently picked up from SyFy to produce a fourth season. Even worse than my Homecoming experience, there was no way to find the 4K version through the TV app. (I checked the apps that are integrated on my Samsung QLED, a Vizio P-Series, and my Xbox One X.) The workaround (suggested by Dennis Burger) was to find the 4K-version listing on my computer browser, add it to my Watchlist, and then go back to the TV to select it from the Watchlist. Far less than an ideal situation.

 

So, what’s the solution? I’d say burn it down and start from scratch, using Netflix as an example. But considering the vast amount of work necessary for something like that to happen, it isn’t remotely feasible. This past summer, Amazon did announce an update is in the works, but it sounds like it will be limited to the mobile-app search function and won’t be a part of the TV app. Until then, the only option seems to be to grin and bear it. Or just open up Netflix instead.

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Internet TV: Not Quite Ready for Primetime

Internet TV

Last week, I talked about my cord-cutting experience and how, after trying to go on-demand-only with Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for a couple months, I realized I still valued the live-TV experience. So I turned my attention to the new crop of Internet TV services: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV NOW, and YouTube TV. I’ve auditioned all four, and I’ve found that none of them hits the nail squarely on the head.

 

Sure, all four services have benefits that make them more desirable (at least to me) than a cable/satellite subscription. The starting price of most packages is under $40 per month, and there’s no equipment rental fee. If you’re already a cord-cutter, then you already own a streaming media device through which to use these services, so no equipment investment is required. Plus, the services are easy to access through mobile devices and Web browsers, so you can watch your content (most of it, anyhow) anywhere you wish.

 

Probably the biggest selling point, though, is that none of these services requires a long-term commitment. DirecTV, Dish Network, and (in my area) Comcast all want me to enter into a one- or two-year agreement to get any kind of a deal on their TV service. I’ve enjoyed long-term relationships with both DirecTV and Dish Network in the past, but I’m just not in a commitment kind of place at the moment. I want the freedom to play the field.

 

Despite all the benefits, something is missing. For me, a “complete” TV package consists of four things: The channels I want, the DVR functionality I need, a user interface I like, and the picture quality I demand. In some way, each service falls short.

 

Sling TV has the lowest starting price and the most flexibility to tailor a package to my wants, but it doesn’t offer any local channels in my area and charges an extra $5/month for DVR functionality—which, by the way, doesn’t work on a number of channels. Can you imagine your cable/satellite DVR just not working on ESPN?

 

YouTube TV offers all the local channels in a simple, one-size-fits-all package, plus a cloud DVR with unlimited storage. But I can’t manage recordings the way I like, and YouTube TV’s picture quality is the poorest of the group.

 

DirecTV NOW offers a whole lot of channel options and on-demand content, and the four major networks are now available in my area (but not all areas), yet the service’s cloud DVR function can’t seem to get out of the beta-testing phase.

 

Lastly, there’s PlayStation Vue, which also has a lot of channel options as you move up the price chain. ABC, CBS, and NBC are offered in my area, but not Fox. PS Vue has a lot of sports options and unlimited cloud DVR functionality, and it offers the best picture quality. But I’m not a big fan of the interface. In typical Sony fashion, the channel guide is laid out differently than every program guide on the planet, and it’s kind of laborious to move through the design.

 

The good news is, these services seem to be updated regularly—new channels get added, and the user experience gets tweaked. I’m confident we’ll eventually get to the point where Internet TV is indistinguishable from the current cable/satellite norm.

 

In the meantime, I’ve settled down with Sling TV, mated with a Tablo over-the-air network DVR to tune and record my local channels. We’ve got a pretty good thing going—but, I confess, there’s a new guy that’s caught my eye: Hulu with Live TV.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

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The End of Appointment TV?

appointment TV

I cut the cord about a year and half ago. I bid adieu to Dish Network and tried to embrace a purely on-demand TV experience—via Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, specifically. It worked for a couple months. I watched a lot of movies and stand-up comedy specials. I binge-watched shows like Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why, Grace and Frankie, and Mozart in the Jungle.

 

But something just didn’t feel right. The honeymoon quickly wore off, and I really missed the live-TV experience. I missed channel surfing. I missed primetime TV. And I especially missed sports. As a football fan, Saturdays and Sundays (and Mondays, Thursdays, and sometimes Fridays) just weren’t the same without live TV in the house. I mean, sports bars can be fun, but I don’t want to have to take up residence in one just to see all the games I’d like to see.

 

Eventually, I subscribed to an Internet TV service (Sling TV) and added an over-the-air DVR (Tablo) to get the local channels in my area. That combination has worked great for me—my TV viewing feels whole again. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much life this TV-viewing model has left.

 

Baby Boomers and Gen Xers like me were raised on the model of “appointment television.” Shows air at a certain time each week, during certain seasons of the year, and you either watch the new episodes live or record them. The rise of the VCR and especially the DVR, with its easy programming and robust storage capabilities, certainly altered appointment television—but didn’t kill it. Instead of adhering to specific appointment times, we became more like the cable guy: “I’ll watch The Big Bang Theory some time between the hours of 8:00 and 11:30 p.m.”

 

And that still holds true for me today. With the exception of sports and special events like the Oscars, I seldom watch anything live. It’s all recorded . . . but it’s also a safe bet that I’m gonna watch my favorite shows (This Is Us, Speechless, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) within a few hours of recording them. The cord may be cut, but the appointment mindset remains.

 

But what about those people who haven’t had “primetime” ingrained in their psyche since birth? We’re seeing the rise of an entire generation of cord-nevers—people who have never subscribed to a traditional pay-TV service. They watch what they want, when they want, how they want. They expect you to release the entire season of Stranger Things 2 at once so they can binge on it as they desire. They don’t watch reruns. They simply rewatch the really good stuff. I don’t think my nine-year-old has ever uttered the words, “Mom, what time does [insert favorite show of the moment] come on?”

 

For now, the rise of Internet TV services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV shows there is still an audience for appointment TV, even amongst the cord-cutters. I just read a story from FierceCable.com that Internet TV providers gained 2.6 million customers in 2017, totaling about 4.6 million subscribers in all. But the story goes on to say that those numbers only represent about one-third of the people who have walked away from traditional pay-TV service since 2010. The other two-thirds have presumably gone on-demand only (or tuned out entirely).

 

It seems almost inevitable that on-demand will become the new normal, and live TV will become the bonus content. If you’re wondering how that might play out, look no further than Amazon’s deal with the NFL to stream Thursday Night Football to Prime customers this past season. It’s on-demand, with a hint of appointment TV thrown in for good measure.

 

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the AV editor at Wirecutter. Adrienne lives in Colorado,
where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

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Disney Gambles Big on Star Wars Streaming

Disney streaming service

For Star Wars fans, last week was a gift that just kept on giving. Not only did we learn that Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming The Last Jedi, is launching a trilogy of films independent from the Skywalker Saga, but Disney also dropped a bomb about a new live-action TV series set in that beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. This is huge for a number of reasons, not least because George Lucas tried and failed to create a live-action show before selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney in 2012.

 

Maybe more significant, though, is how Disney plans to distribute the series. It’s not coming to the airwaves, nor Netflix, which currently serves as the exclusive home to several Disney-produced Marvel series, including the highly acclaimed Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Instead, the Star Wars show—along with Disney’s films and other properties—will reach consumers’ eyeballs by way of a new streaming video service launching in 2019.

 

It should go without saying that I’ll be signing up for said service the minute it launches. But I think Disney is making a huge mistake. Maybe not in the short term, mind you. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Disney’s stock will get another bump and Netflix’s will take another hit as the studio moves all its films and most of its TV shows to its new, exclusive platform.

 

And for what it’s worth, apparently Disney has no plans to evict Luke Cage and the rest of the Defenders from the only home they’ve ever known, so that’s a plus.

 

I can’t imagine many if any people will dump Netflix entirely for DisneyFlix or whatever it ends up being called. But I still think this move is a net-negative for the streaming-video industry, and for consumers in particular. Why? Because we’re already seeing people approaching a breaking point with the continued fragmentation of the streaming market.

 

In other words, I think we’re reaching Peak Subscription Saturation. For me, subscribing to this new Disney service just to get my weekly Star Wars fix likely means I’ll be dumping Hulu. And if I were also a Star Trek fan subscribing to All Access just to watch Discovery, I’d likely be looking at dumping CBS’s streaming service instead. (Spare me your whining, Trekkies—Star Wars is just better and you know it.)

 

The simple fact is that most people are cutting the cord because of the value proposition. Expensive cable-TV bundles that force you to pay for ESPN if you want to watch Cartoon Network are increasingly becoming a breaking point for most people.

 

Could the exact opposite problem start to hurt the streaming market? Could we literally end up with too much choice instead of too little? It’s entirely possible. After all, who wants to pay $6 or $8 or $10 a month just to watch one TV show? Are you willing to pay $100 a month or more just to have all the streaming apps you would need to subscribe to if all the studios and content providers start their own services? I know I’m not.

 

In the end, I have no doubt Disney’s new streaming service will be successful. Playing the Star Wars card is pretty much the same as having an “I Win” button. But if this streaming fragmentation continues, I also know this just as surely: We—the geeks, the nerds, the regular cinephiles, and the TV junkies—will be the biggest losers.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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Breeding “The Office”

making The Office

Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.

 

I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.

In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.

 

(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)

 

Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatowwho would rewrite the American-comedy rule bookhis first big break.

 

Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.

 

Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.

Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”

 

Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreakingand at the time unappreciatedseries, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.

 

Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. AbramsFeig probably had the biggest impact.

 

Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.

 

And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.

 

Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.

 

To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.

—Michael Gaughn

making The Office

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

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