Railroad Alaska and How Cable is Changing

On Thanksgiving, as I flipped through TV channels with my family, we came across something spectacular. The TV channel Destination America was airing Railroad Alaska Real Time Ride, which is literally five hours of a train’s dashcam. It is 130 miles through the Alaskan tundra. Most of the time, there is nothing interesting to see: no people and no animals.

railroad-alaska

We laughed and acted overzealous about the train’s travel to Healy, pointing out every signal and bridge we saw, and we weren’t the only ones.

Not everyone wants to watch something this pedestrian, but it was oddly compelling to a small group of people. (It was certainly better than the Eagle’s game). Like a lot of things on the Internet, it gained a small but dedicated following.

This was a publicity stunt that was likely very successful for the channel Destination America. They added in commercials, got a lot of organic marketing, and spent next to nothing on production costs. As some people commented, this can very quickly become a Thanksgiving tradition like the Yule Log during Christmas. I believe that this signals the future of live TV. As the Internet has done to everything else, live video has been and will become much easier to create and watch, and this will cause the content that we watch to become more specific and more tailored to our interests.

A Christmas Story

It also emulates another Christmas tradition that is popular among people in the US. Since 1997, the movie A Christmas Story has been played continually for 24-hours during Christmas Eve and Christmas. It brings in over 50 million viewers over the course of those 24 hours. Even if you’re busy eating Christmas Eve dinner, you can pick up at any point in the movie after that or before that. If you just leave the channel on and go about your day like normal, you can piece the entire thing together through each airing.

It’s a much more leanback experience than manually controlling a movie. Of course, this doesn’t work for many movies. A Christmas Story works because it’s told in a series of vignettes that are loosely connected. This type of viewing experience works well for something like Railroad Alaska where you don’t need to pay close attention all the time. It’s an ambient experience that can be put down and picked up at any time.

The Simpsons Channel

fxx-simpsons-marathon

Cable providers like Comcast and Verizon will frequently tease consumers with hundreds of channels, most of which you’ll never watch. As more channels are created and added to these subscription plans, they have become more specific.

Take for example the channel FXX. Their claim to fame is Every Simpsons Ever. At the end of last August, FXX aired every episode of the Simpsons in order without any other shows, an event that lasted over a week. It was very successful, and so FXX continued to air Simpsons episodes. They bundle episodes based on specific themes five days a week. The only show my family watches on FXX are the Simpsons, and the DVR will contain at least five at any given time.

FXX does air a lot more than just this one show, but let’s return to the concept we discussed earlier about a leanback TV experience. I can sit down for a half an hour and watch an episode of the Simpsons if that’s what I want. There isn’t a large burden of choice that comes with being able to watch every episode, and there’s not the same commitment either. If I don’t want to watch it, it’s easy to flip to a different channel and watch something else.

This is the main benefit of cable, or even radio. You can consume a preselected stream of content instead of having to manually choose the content. Now that apps like Live Channels on Android TV give us the equivalent through the Internet, the way that we see channels is changing.

Live Streaming

If you look at live streams on the Internet today, you’ll see they are often very specific. You can watch ospreys 24 hours a day. Twitch streams are one person or a group of people playing a single game. Periscope is just all about a single event broadcast by a person.

Cable channels try to air a variety of shows in order to appeal to a wide demographic, but I predict that as the costs of producing a single stream of content drops, more streams will narrow on smaller demographics. It won’t be inconceivable for channels to be created that will just show a single movie over and over, or episodes of a TV show, or some other single source of content. The current blocks of daytime TV, primetime, and late night make sense in a world with limited bandwidth and channels, but less sense today.

New websites are already doing this. Autoplay.co will curate videos from YouTube into infinitely long playlists with titles such as “Before the Fracture” (extreme sports clips). It can be addictive because each video is short and plays seamlessly into the next. They aren’t hosting the videos, so there’s no barrier to creating as many as are needed. The goal is no longer to appeal to as many people as possible, but to maximize watch time for each user.

Live Channels App

autoplay-channel-selector

Autoplay.co has said that they are interested in expanding to platforms like Android TV. Wrapping that into the Live Channels app would be a perfect match.

The Live Channels app on Android TV allows any user to add streams from apps. It is an app already installed by default on Android TV. When you install an app such as Pluto TV or Cumulus TV, you’ll find Live Channels present as well.

What’s great is that the video streams from both of these apps can be viewed in a centralized app. Each one is given the same weight, so any app that has live content can be browsed in the same place. Like how a cable box lets you surf hundreds of channels, the Live Channels app not only lets you surf hundreds of channels. But it also lets you surf from all kinds of sources, like if you had access to multiple cable boxes. Having each stream provider integrated into a single list creates an incredibly compelling experience.

Live Channels is something Google has said is a focus with Android TV. Hundreds of niche streams can be added and browsed, and if you don’t want to see one, it can be easily hidden. Channels can be filtered by category as well. If you still can’t decide which channel to watch, Google will post recommended channels in the recommended row.

DVR

The Live Channels app is barebones. There is no way to skip back, pause, or record any live video. Although this might seem like an omission, this is an important part of the philosophy. These aren’t necessarily meant for you to be watching intently. If you want pre-recorded video, there’s always YouTube. Live streams are about being ephemeral, lasting only for a short period of time. Most of these live streaming sites will store previously recorded video so that you can watch it later as well.

If you want to watch a specific episode of The Simpsons, you might want to look at the on-demand service Simpsons World. The TV channel is for those who have less initiative and no idea what content they actually want to watch.

In the future Google may add DVR functionality, but with the accessibility to pre-recorded video already, what we think of as a DVR for live TV will change. It might just become a list of bookmarks to content we’d like to watch like Pocket.

Conclusion

As live streaming takes off, it’ll become easy to find a live stream of any topic and just that topic. The Internet allows anyone to curate their own streams and show them off to others with a low barrier to entry. We will no longer be looking for channels that appeal to everyone, but rather how long we’ll want to watch that content. The Live Channels app is a modern version of a cable box, where we can watch live content from all of these Internet sources. It understands the ephemeral nature of live content and through Android TV one can watch on-demand video through a number of other apps.

Cable will continue to adapt to our Internet streaming, as more people begin to cut the cord. Companies like Comcast and Verizon will have to come up with creative solutions to keep customers engaged and watching compelling content. If they need to dedicate an entire channel to a train ride in Alaska, it’ll happen.

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker)Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop.Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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