Apple TV and YouTube Red: The Truth Beyond the Hype

The new Apple TV device and the YouTube Red subscription service may not seem to have anything to do with each other beyond having highly anticipated launches in the same month. But there’s a subtler connection at play here.

Both Apple TV and YouTube Red aren’t quite the breakthroughs their companies profess them to be. But it would be very premature to pronounce either of them disappointments. Because as underwhelming as they might seem out of the gate, they both have tremendous potential to evolve in ways that can recapture breakthrough status. Neither may be the seeming overnight sensations that the original YouTube or iPhone were, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get to a place where they can be almost as impactful.

What YouTube Red is launching with doesn’t make sense on a number of levels. First, there is the combination of what seem like very different products: the ability to skip ads; access to Google Play Music; an offline download option, and coming in January, long-form original programming featuring YouTuber talent. Each could probably stand on their own as more compelling offerings at much lower price points; glued together, it’s a mish-mash that lacks defined identity.

That YouTube saw fit to offer a commercial-free option at all is curious considering one of the best things about the platform is how mercifully sparing its ad loads are. Pre-roll and overlays are easily dispensed with just a few clicks, and seem a small price to pay for the privilege of free access to the most massive trove of video on the planet. The demand for the skip option isn’t going to be as glaring as it was for Hulu, which was so clearly hurting in comparison to its ad-free rivals that its own recently added ad-free option was more a necessity.

The music portion of YouTube Red delivers such greater value than the other parts of its offering that it’s a wonder that there was any need to create a separate “Red” brand; why not call it Google Play Music Plus and price it a few more dollars than Google Play Music?

Red doesn’t make much sense as an offering but that doesn’t necessarily mean what Google is doing here is stupid; it’s more probable that what they’ve launched with here is a beachhead on which they intend to build something more compelling.

Bet on Red pulling a pivot (or two) in 2016 and beyond as the company figures out how best to evolve the service. YouTube could have at least waited to launch for the long-form originals to be in place, but that may represent the biggest risk of all given the unprecedented step they’re taking to plant homegrown talent in a completely different style of programming and then ask fans to pay for it.

As to why YouTube couldn’t just wait until it figured out something more compelling to go to market with, who knows? But there’s surely misgivings about the rush to market given the PR fiasco regarding the deal terms that allegedly forced YouTube creators to participate in Red.

Apple TV will probably enjoy a smoother launch because no matter what you criticize the device for–and there’s plenty of reasons to quibble–the product is so unmistakably a quantum leap over its predecessor that it can’t be dismissed as easily. The remote control alone is an engineering marvel, from its remarkably fluid touchpad to a Siri integration that may be the most successful implementation of voice command for TVs on the market today.

But what may be most notable about this iteration of Apple TV is what’s missing: any meaningful integration with the pay-TV universe where the lion’s share of viewing still happens. The device compensates for its absence somewhat for cord-cutters with nifty–but far from comprehensive–universal search capabilities, and even pay-TV subscribers can check out live streams of some linear TV channels through their branded apps.

But Apple TV’s worst-kept secret is the aborted attempt to reach a deal with top TV programmers that would have provided a virtual channel lineup comparable to what is available via pay TV. That failure alone will probably keep Apple TV from being the gamechanger CEO Tim Cook tried to position the device as; this is not going to be another “iOpener” that cracks a fresh market wide open the way iPhone or iPad did. Intense competition from much similar, cheaper products offered by Roku, Google and Amazon made that proposition a non-starter anyway.

Nevertheless, the new Apple TV is a very significant upgrade that may not be a revelation today but should be credited for at least paving a clear path to a future that finally brings TV into something resembling the 21st century.

Even a cursory examination of the native tvOS apps that were built specifically for Apple TV, not to mention the cross-platform capabilities that will knit together multiple devices like Apple’s phones, watches and tablets with the TV, gives off an unmistakable whiff of the more sophisticated, truly interactive era the medium will inevitably enter. With Apple TV, Cook has perched his company at the front of the pack in what will be a long race to own the TV experience, but it’s a race that is now his to lose.

And while integration with the traditional linear-TV lineup is sorely lacking, it’s entirely possible that the new Apple TV could raise the bar on consumers’ user-interface expectations for the medium enough to provide the leverage that will essentially force programmers to make a deal to be part of the next iteration of Apple TV. Unless the pay-TV industry can start to demonstrate the UX proficiency Comcast is starting to achieve with X1, the programmers could find themselves seeming backward by not being part of this new world.

As for now, if there’s anything disruptive about Apple TV circa 2015, it’s actually the videogame industry, not the TV biz, that needs to worry. Apple has a very good chance of migrating the casual gaming experience it has already nailed on phones and tablets to the TV, opening the category up to a segment of consumers who aren’t being served by Xbox/Playstation/Wii, or the lesser ventures that never quite figured out how to ignite the so-called micro-console market.

But being immediately disruptive doesn’t need to be what defines either Apple TV or YouTube Red. Dwell on their shortcomings if you must, but stay mindful of the promise they hold in the longer term.

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