Most nights, I settle on the couch about 8 p.m. looking for a TV show to watch. My options are preposterously good—this is the Golden Age of Television, after all. Yet there I am, futzing with remotes, launching apps and scrolling past show after show until they all blur together. Then I watch “The Office” for the umpteenth time.
Why keep heading back to Dunder Mifflin? Because finding something better requires three remotes, a couple of set-top boxes and half a dozen apps including Hulu, Netflix and HBO Go. TV used to be simple. You’d turn on the set, flip between a few channels and decide on the best available option. It wasn’t always great, but finding it was easy. As TV moves to the web, we need a new guide. It needs search and sorting and personalization built in. It has to help us find something to watch even when we don’t know what we want. And it wouldn’t hurt if it was all easier to do from one simple remote… or even my phone. I went in search of a great clicker, and a great source of things to click on. Turns out, both are harder to find than I thought.So far, the best system I’ve found is an app called Reelgood—and it doesn’t cost anything. It helps users find shows and movies across several dozen services, and offers useful recommendations based on Rotten Tomatoes reviews and viewer data. Recently redesigned, it’s become the place I start whenever I want to watch anything. I use it to track my progress across shows, and keep a list of things I’d like to watch. I also have a list of things I’d like to watch on one of my subscription services, stuff that’s maybe currently only for sale or rent, like “Deadpool 2.” Reelgood will alert me if it shows up. Yet even Reelgood doesn’t track some services I use most, like YouTube TV and Sling.Facebook Inc. has ambitions to create high-quality content through Facebook Watch and Instagram’s IGTV—I can’t search for “Tom vs. Time” or “RelationShipped.” YouTube already offers a slate of original content, as does Twitter. Everyone from Disney to CollegeHumor is launching streaming services of their own. More streaming content is great news, but all that content won’t matter to me if I can’t find it. Until we get a real TV guide for the internet age, this so-called future of TV feels a lot like wandering through the Blockbuster shelves back in the day, always searching for the perfect thing but never quite finding it. Write to David Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org
The clicker for everythingI’ve been testing the $100 Caavo Control Center, which aims to simplify all your content delivery systems into a single interface. You plug up to four devices into the Control Center, then operate them all with Caavo’s skinny black remote. Most universal remotes require complicated setup, but I plugged in a Roku, an Xbox, a Fire TV and a Chromecast, and was spinning through them with the Caavo in about 10 minutes. It successfully whittled all my devices, cables and remotes down to one. That’s worth $100 by itself, if you ask me. Caavo charges $2 a month if you want its more ambitious service: acting as a sort of content switchboard. On Caavo’s text-heavy interface—which appears on screen over other device interfaces—you get recommendations for things to watch and search. Caavo uses machine-vision tech to actually understand what’s on the screen as you’re navigating your streaming boxes, so it can make sure its commands are working. It also remembers what you’re watching, and can use that data to build cross-platform watch lists, letting you jump from one show to another on a completely different box with a click or two. The switching can be slow, but it’s easier than finagling TV inputs. Lots of universal remotes purport to do something similar. Logitech’s Harmony lineup is familiar to any home-theater obsessive, and you can even buy a device like the Sideclick to attach to an existing remote and give it more controls. But Caavo is easier and more elegant than the others I’ve tested.
Surfin’ and Searchin’In 2015, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook declared, “The future of TV is apps.” Unfortunately, he was right. Apps make sense when they contain wholly different experiences, but the current state of TV is like downloading a separate Instagram app for each account you follow. I tracked my own habits over a few weeks and found myself watching stuff from more than a dozen sources, from Netflix and Hulu to Twitch and Twitter . No service, not even Caavo, offers search or recommendations across all of those. You might be able to search on your Roku to see if a show is playing on Hulu, Netflix and/or Amazon, but it’s a lot harder to find things that may be lurking in cable-channel apps like HGTV or more sprawling video repositories such as YouTube without going to them. And have you ever heard of Tubi? Pluto TV? Yahoo View? They’re all free, and actually full of stuff you might want to watch—not that you’d ever know that. Some companies see their library and viewer data as a competitive advantage; others don’t have the technology to take part in universal search, says David Larkin, CEO of GoWatchIt, a TV and movie search engine that licenses its tech to other brands. Apple now offers an app called TV that aggregates a number of content providers into a single place, where you can search for what you want to watch or get recommendations from Apple’s editorial team. When you tap a Netflix show in the TV app, it jumps straight to that episode in the Netflix app. For Android users, the Google Play Movies & TV app offers similar features.
Appeared in the October 8, 2018, print edition as 'Internet TV Viewers Need a Better Clicker.'