Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Roku Experience - And What It's Taught Me About Pre-Roll Ads

I finally broke down and bought a Roku box.  It was easy enough to set up, although not so easy that I’d recommend my dad go out and get one for himself (that would only serve to annoy both him and me).   I signed up for Netflix and Hulu Plus and a few other channels, and proceeded to settle down to see what all the fuss was about.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think the most appropriate word to describe my experience is “underwhelmed.”  Don’t get me wrong, I like it well enough, but if it broke tomorrow I wouldn’t be disappointed or in any rush to replace it, which is in stark contrast to my initial reaction to Sirius Radio. I haven’t listened to terrestrial radio since first turning on Sirius, and I can’t imagine ever buying a car again without it pre-installed.

I think maybe I was expecting the universe of premium online video at my fingertips  but there’s no HGTV, no Food Network, I have no idea how current the news is, and as my wife has pointed out, she can’t find her Real Housewives, although that could be seen as a benefit. On the other hand, if I consider premium content to be Japanese anime, I now have an endless supply at my disposal.  I did start watching “House of Cards,” because I like Kevin Spacey, but gave up after a few minutes.  I couldn’t focus. I just kept thinking “How will they possibly make back the $100 million they spent on this?” and “Ugh, it feels like it’s going to be a lot of work to have to catch up on all these episodes, so never mind.”

I also expected the content to just “be there.” Instead, finding content is more like a clumsy fumble.  Clearly, this is not a device that you want to use while eating dinner. By the time you figure out what you want to watch, your food will be cold.
So, in the quest for a more comfortable venue for watching online video, I’ve ended up with less content and a more annoying way to search for it than via a laptop or tablet.  It’s not terrible, just not what I was hoping for.
But what really surprised me was my aversion to the ads.  I thought I wouldn’t mind them so much, since I was watching it on my TV, in the comfort of my home, and they were preceding a long stretch of content -- it’s not like a 30-second pre-roll standing in the way of a 40-second “cute kitten” video.  I don’t mind the ads so much when I’m watching cable and I get a lot more of them in a row.  So what’s the deal?  Why are these ads more annoying?  I came to two conclusions
  • The countdown clock is a menace.  I get the concept behind it, and every online video network uses it, but maybe letting me know how much longer until the ad is over isn’t the best idea.  It makes me anxious and it makes that 30 seconds feel like a day and a half.
  • I had to work to put the schedule together.  What network, what show, what season, what episode…. I did the searching, and I decided what to watch, when.  So, naturally, I want it now, not 30 seconds from now.  With standard TV, on the other hand, there’s little work on my end; the networks set the schedule, and I just make the popcorn, find the channel I want, and relax. 
In the ongoing quest to make online video more closely resemble TV, these two hurdles must be overcome before any real progress can be made. Or, perhaps better yet, we need to abandon this desire to be like TV and accept online video for what is: a viable, effective and valuable medium on its own. 

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