A Cord-Cutter's Lament

As a confirmed cord-cutter, I have four Rokus and subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime. I also have an antenna on my roof that does a pretty good job with local channels, but the vast majority of my viewing--probably more than 99%--is on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.

It's not that I don't like my local channels--I just don't think about them very often. I get all the programs I need, on my own schedule, online.

I do watch broadcast networks when they manage to score some kind of big-event programming. Like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or the Olympics.

And so for the past two weeks, I've watched far more live television than usual, and I discovered something interesting and completely unexpected.

I like it.

Online television has a tremendous amount going for it. There's nothing like the control that Netflix affords, or the variety of Hulu Plus. Just like my first DVR, online video frees me from live program schedules and interminable commercial breaks. But these conveniences come at a cost: simplicity and ease of use.

The Olympics reminded me there is something broadcast does perfectly: the viewer experience. In every respect--from turning on the TV to choosing and watching a show to adjusting the volume--the ease of broadcast has streaming beat, hands down.

Maybe it happened by accident. Maybe during TV's low-tech infancy, TV manufacturers had no choice but to keep it simple when they worked out how to do on and off, channel up and down, loud and soft. And TV networks knew people weren't going to watch a blank screen so they had to figure out how to provide a continuous program stream and avoid going to black. No matter--live television all came together in a beautiful, intuitive, satisfying way for viewers.

Then came VHS and cable boxes and DVRs. Suddenly there were a lot more buttons to press, and it took a little longer to figure out what to watch. But the addition of more channels was worth it. The ability to watch any movie you could rent, or to see a DVR'd "60 Minutes" on Monday instead of Sunday more than justified the extra headache.

Today, online program distributors have the potential to upend the TV environment just as cable and DVRs did. The breadth of quality programming available online from Netflix, Hulu Plus and a handful of others is truly impressive, and the quality of video streaming is sometimes very, very good and nearly always good enough.

But between an overabundance of choice, user interfaces of varying quality and confusing windowing policies, it's tough for viewers to find shows--or even know what shows are worth watching.

I confess that more than once I've spent an entire evening searching, scrolling and browsing and not watched a single frame of TV.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be working in online television need to solve this if we're to create a truly competitive television product.

The program quality is there. Now we must do a much better job of simplifying the process for viewers and connecting them to shows they like in a quick, easy, satisfying way.

Just like watching the Olympics. I turned on the TV and this tremendous mix of drama, thrills and intrigue simply happened. No searching, no loading apps.

But now, as the saying goes, the networks will go back to their regularly scheduled programming.

And I will go back to "House of Cards." Until the Emmys, maybe.