If Apple Doesn’t Reinvent TV, A Startup Will


TV glassesTV is broken. We know this. We’ve known it for years. There are too many channels with too much crap. Browsing through the program guide consists of paging through 500 channels you never watch to get to the 20 sprinkled throughout that you do watch—the bundled business model of cable TV means that you can’t just pay for the channels you actually watch. The TV network is still not connected to other networks in any meaningful way (except when my phone rings and the caller ID shows up on my TV—at least Verizon got that one right). And the software that lets us interact and control our TVs is horribly designed. As Apple CEO Tim Cook told NBC last December:

When I go into my living room and turn on the TV, I feel like I have gone backwards in time by 20 to 30 years.

A lot of us feel the same way. We’ve been waiting for Apple to fix it. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. But Apple doesn’t seem to be doing much about it, and may even be backing off its plans to attack the TV market directly.

Or maybe it will just keep whittling away at the media industry’s resolve through its current, and less controversial, incarnation of Apple TV—the $99 set-top box that brings movies and TV shows from the internet to your big-screen TV in the living room. At least the user interface is leaps and bounds better than the same old electronic program guide we’ve been stuck with on cable for the past 30 years.

program guide

When you combine the on-demand options of Apple TV with a subscription from Netflix or Hulu (available as apps within the same interface), there’s plenty to watch. All that’s missing is live sports and events like the Oscars, and some first-run TV shows. But if those were available a la carte or as subscriptions, it is not too hard to imagine cobbling together your own package of programming. Start with a Netflix subscription, add HBO Go, a few for your favorite sports, round it out with on-demand movie rentals, and you’d be all set. We are not there yet, but the world is moving in this direction.

Yet here’s the rub: Even if Apple succeeds in lining up all of the necessary content deals with media companies and comes out with a fully realized TV tomorrow, that would only be a first step. Fixing the user interface and making broadcast-quality video available over the internet is not reinventing TV. All that does is shift the distribution of content from cable and satellite networks to the internet. Shifting distribution is half the battle. Once you click play, it’s still the same experience.

In order to truly reinvent TV, you need to change both how video is created and consumed. Obviously, there is tons of experimentation on this front on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. But most of the innovations are in format and style.

All of that changes once your TV becomes a computer that can run apps. If you launch Apple TV today, it is pretty clear this is how Apple sees the world. You are not presented with a program guide. You are presented with a screen full of featured movies and content apps—Netflix, Hulu, MLB.com, YouTube.


Yet the apps on Apple TV today are all distribution apps. They mostly repackage video content from the internet and present it on your TV. But there is no reason why these TV apps couldn’t be more like the apps on your iPad, and take advantage of the computing power and connectivity of Apple TV. There is no reason why Apple couldn’t open up that screen to all sorts of TV apps that work in sync with iPads and iPhones in ways we can only begin to envision today.

What if a TV program was more than just a video that you passively watched? What if developers or content producers could insert code into video in compelling ways that fundamentally changed the experience of watching TV?

Yes, the history of interactive TV is a long list of failed experiments. But timing is everything. When I watch video on my iPad, I don’t want to just lean back and watch. I want to lean back and touch.

The internet is so captivating precisely because it is a two-way medium. TV would certainly be very different if it was two-way also instead of remaining a one-way, broadcast medium. Already you see hints of this when people use the internet as a back channel to communicate about what is happening on TV—Twitter and the Oscars or the Superbowl are perfect examples.

I am confident that in the near future we are going to see many apps that layer data onto video in captivating ways. Apple can help usher in these apps and truly reinvent TV by further opening up its AirPlay and other SDKs to developers—for instance, it could allow developers to build apps that throw video up on the big screen while keeping information and control elements on the second iPad or iPhone screens. Just as there are apps built specifically for the iPad, there could be a host of TV apps built specifically for Apple TV, both split-screen apps and dedicated apps.

The writing is on the wall. This is going to happen with or without Apple. If Apple doesn’t make it happen soon, a startup will.

It will start as software, and will look like an app. It will make the new TV experience work on a tablet first. But that may be enough to get the ball rolling. After all, the iPad today is a precursor of what TV will become tomorrow.

And if Apple TV (or Google TV or Xbox) doesn’t become a platform for these types of apps, there is always the internet itself. It’s an open platform, and every page doesn’t have to look like a garish newspaper layout. The best-designed sites already look more and more like beautiful magazines. One day, they will start to look more like TV, except they will maintain all the two-way interactivity of the web.

Infographics Are Broken. We Can Do Better.

Infographics on the web are so bad and so broken. They are everywhere, yet few actually do a decent job of conveying information (click on the one at left to see what I mean). Some even argue that they are ruining the Internet. They tend to be formulaic and overreaching, often cobbling together too much information instead of focusing on the one or two nuggets that are truly useful. (How much better would most infographics be if they pulled out the most salient chart or set of stats and discarded the rest?)

There are many reasons why they suck. Primary among those is that they take too long to make, and the underlying data is difficult to assemble. Today, they are driven more by marketing budgets than editorial discretion. Most of them are created by companies and distributed for “free” to blogs and media outlets as a form of PR and viral marketing. The publishers eat them up because it is free content that would otherwise be expensive to produce. Design shops sometimes charge a few thousand dollars to create a single infographic.

I know we can do better, which is why I’ve applied for a grant from the Knight News Challenge on Data to build a data visualization platform to address some of these shortcomings (please like it or reblog it on Tumblr). You can also learn more in this Q&A about the project I did with Jeff Davis.

As I note in my Knight News application:

Infographics are very popular on the web, but most of them aren’t very good. The information inside them is trapped. They tend to be flat files, unsearchable, and most are not interactive.

And yet people love them because humans are visual creatures. We can absorb more data more quickly by glancing at a chart than scanning the same numbers in a table, or reading through a few paragraphs. Publishers love infographics because readers can’t stop themselves from clicking on them. (A whole sub-meme exists for infographics about infographics, including the one below by Think Brilliant, which is actually a rare example of an effective infographic).

What publishers need is a better way to create and present visual data. We need a tool to produce well-designed infographics on our own—quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. And not just one-size-fits-all infographics—all kinds of data visualizations, from simple bar charts to interactive maps and timelines.

But wait. Aren’t there a growing number of startups already tackling this infographic-creation problem? Yes, companies like Visual.lyInfogr.amVizualize.me, Tableau Software, and iCharts are creating tools in this general area.  And that’s great. If they can do a better job creating these visualizations, I’d love to work with them. However, all of them currently embrace a bring-your-own-data approach.

Producing a great interactive chart is only half the battle. A platform that taps into existing data and makes it instantly chartable is what is missing.  Finding the right sources of data in a chartable form is the hard part. There is lots of compelling data all over the Internet: social data (Facebook and Twitter), company data (CrunchBase), financial data (SEC, Yahoo Finance), geo data (Foursquare, Factual), government data (data.gov), product data (Amazon). It all exists in various silos, and most of it cannot be browsed visually.

The big idea here is to create a data visualization platform where data providers can plug into one end and data visualizers can plug into the other. It will be open in that anyone will be able to import or create their own infographic and charting templates. Some of the data and charts will be free, and some will be for sale. But the more open, the better.

Initially, the platform will be geared towards bloggers and news organizations, but could expand to other industries and types of data. Again, from my Knight News Challenge proposal:

We are solving this problem for publishers. First, we will create a library of interactive chart templates, which can be expanded and contributed to by others. By creating templates, we will make it possible to produce high-quality data visualizations in an efficient, repetitive fashion which can be embedded anywhere.

We will also connect existing databases and work with data providers to offer a growing menu of chartable data sets geared towards journalists. Journalists will be able to bring their own data, but over time they will be able to find more of what they need baked into the platform.

The best data visualizations out there today are bespoke and almost hand-crafted. That doesn’t scale for web publishing in terms of either economics or speed. Most blogs and web news organizations don’t have an art department. A platform for creating decent looking interactive infographics is certainly something I would use, and I suspect other bloggers and news publishers would embrace it as well.

If you think it’s a good candidate for the Knight News Data Challenge, please support it by “hearting” the application or reblogging it. If you are a data provider or a company creating data visualizations, let me know what is the best way to work with you. And if you are a programmer or information designer and would like to get involved, please contact me (erickschonfeld at gmail).

We are awash in data, but we can’t even see it. The data visualization platform I envision would be a step towards fixing infographics so that they actually tell us something new.

Is The NYT Paywall Working?

Almost one year ago in mid-March 2011, the New York Times put up a paywall on its site and started charging frequent visitors. So how is it doing? Traffic to the NYT predictably took an initial hit and is still slightly below its pre-paywall levels. But the number of paid digital subscribers is growing steadily.

In its most recent quarter, the New York Times announced today that there are now 454,000 paid online subscribers to the NYT and the International Herald Tribune, up 16 percent from the previous quarter. (If you add in the Boston Globe’s 18,000 digital subs, the total rises to 472,000, but I’ll stick with just the NYT numbers for this analysis and the chart above).

The number of paid subscribers to the NYT is up 62 percent since the second quarter of 2011, when it had 281,000. Digital subscribers pay between $15 and $35 a month (although you can get a 4-week trial right now for 99 cents, and print subscribers get the online versions for no additional charge). Total circulation revenues at the New York Times Media Group is up 12.8 percent to $190 million, while total advertising revenues are down 4.5 percent to $173 million. Circulation revenues are now more than advertising revenues.

And it’s not just weakness in print advertising that is bringing down those numbers. Digital advertising revenues in the news group alone are down 2.3 percent (and down an even greater 10 percent if you count the struggling About.com unit). Without the paywall, digital ad revenues would be higher.

But the tradeoff seems to be working somewhat. Circulation revenues are growing faster (up 12.8 percent) than advertising revenues are declining (down 4.5 percent). All of these numbers are just for the New York Times Media Group, but the same trends are showing up across the entire company, which includes numbers from the Boston Globe and About.com (Total advertising revenues are down 8.1 percent, while total circulation revenues are up 9.7 percent).

The NYT is now at about half a million paid digital subscribers. That number is partly inflated by special discounted trial offers, but if it can keep those trial members paying at full price or convince print subscribers to stick around, the paywall will be doing its job. It really needs to get to one million paid digital subscribers to prove enduring. By that point, digital advertising revenues might also rebound because paid subscribers are considered more loyal, and thus more valuable to advertisers. That’s how it works in print media. Magazines and newspapers routinely spend marketing dollars to increase paid circulation so that they can charge more for the ads. The ad rates are typically based on the number of “paying” subscribers (even if they are not all paying full price).

Online it’s a little bit different because the same ads are shown to paying subscribers and casual visitors ( who can read 10 stories a month for free). Paying subscribers, though, will make up an increasing percentage of the total pageviews since they are not limited in how many pages they can view. The NYT salesforce should be trying to charge more for its paying audience, which overtime should result in a higher blended CPM (cost per thousand impressions) for its online ads—or at least keep upward pressure on those rates.

It doesn’t take that many more paying subscribers to impact pageviews significantly, which is what the advertising revenues are based on (impressions). If you are paying for the NYT, chances are you go there every day and click to your heart’s content. I’d love to know the number of clicks per paid subscriber. But I’d be willing to bet that at about one million paid subs, the pageviews more than make up for what they lost to the paywall.

Turntable.fm Goes Legit, Signs Deals With Major Music Labels

The biggest question hanging over social music startup Turntable.fm was whether the major labels would let it survive. The answer to that question is, yes. Turntable chairman Seth Goldstein is announcing at SXSW that after 9 months of negotiating, Turntable has signed licensing agreements with all the major music labels. I caught up with Seth yesterday at the Four Seasons in Austin, where he told me about the deal in the video interview above. (Greg Sandoval at CNET caught wind of the news a few days ago, and now it is confirmed).

Turntable launched less than a year ago, and now has reached one million users. Through its website and mobile apps, you can visit virtual clubs where you can spin music for everyone else in the room or just listen along, chat and bob your virtual head. The music licensing wasn’t straight-forward because depending on whether a user is DJing (and selecting tracks) or just listening (the majority of users), a different license applies.

But Turntable is an amazing marketing vehicle for the music labels, and they came to terms with the startup. In the video interview, Seth talks a little bit about how Turntable finds sponsors to bring major music artists to both Turntable rooms and live events. He also mentions that an Android app is in the works.

TV Apps

It’s time to rethink TV apps. Many of the top entertainment apps on the iPad today are essentially digital TV channels—both new and old (Netflix, Hulu, ABC, NBC). But these are basically just ways to watch regular TV shows on your iPad, computer, or big-screen TV connected to an Apple set-top box. They don’t really go beyond that or take advantage of the fact that they are, well, apps.

All of that could start to change soon. Tomorrow, Apple is expected to announce a new iPad and a new Apple TV. It is very possible the Apple TV tomorrow will be just an update to Apple’s current set-top box device—AKA, the “hobby,” not the mythical TV the company is also supposedly working on that was Steve Jobs’ last project. When Apple moves the product beyond hobby status, it will be an actual TV with a screen and computer innards. If it is successful, it will not only change the way TV shows are distributed, but could also change how we experience TV.

In its attempt to turn TV into more than a hobby, Apple is reportedly trying to convince the TV industry to turn their channels into apps and stream their video programming over the Internet directly to Apple TVs (as well as iPads, iPhones, and Macs). Presumably, these channels apps could be free and advertising-supported or charge an ongoing subscription just like magazine or other apps can today.

The prospect of streaming subscription TV delivered over the Internet is a direct challenge to the cable and satellite TV industry because it bypasses their distribution and their bundled billing relationships with consumers. The ability to pick and choose your channels or shows and pay only for the ones you actually watch is certainly appealing. But disrupting TV distribution is only half the story, and Apple certainly isn’t alone in trying to do this (so is Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Hulu).

The other part of the story has yet to be written, and it will be written by developers. Apple wants to turn TV channels into apps. What does that mean? So far we’ve only seen plain vanilla versions of TV apps. They are typically collections of videos from one TV channel or site organized in an easy-to-consume fashion. Sit-back TV works, and they don’t want to mess with it. But TV apps could deliver so much more than just video. They could deliver data, social commentary, and even geo-local context when appropriate.

For most TV apps, there should always be a veg out mode. That should be the default mode because that is the way most people watch TV. But it also depends on the show and what else you are doing. We are already multitasking when we watch TV. The rise of second-screen companion apps that you play around with on your iPhone or iPad while you are watching TV is a testament to how easily our attention drifts. When the TV show or game your are watching gets boring, many of us are increasingly turning to Twitter and other companion apps for entertainment (often to commiserate about how awful the shows are that we are forcing ourselves to watch).

Most companion apps today pull in filtered social feeds about the shows you are watching. Social streams like chatter on Facebook and Twitter are just a layer of data. Those streams could just as easily be available in the primary TV apps themselves. There should be a way to push the video to your big living room screen via AirPlay, while continuing to use your iPad or iPhone for the other data features.

But let’s tale this a step further. What other layers of data could be added to TV to make it better, and more engaging? I think that depends on the kind of TV you are watching. If it’s just mindless TV, adding “interactivity” could be a mistake. But if I am watching a movie with a great soundtrack, when the credits roll, why not link to those songs on iTunes? Or if I am watching a cooking show, let me download the recipe. A newscast or documentary could benefit from all sorts of additional footage, links, and charts. A travel channel could geo-target its shows.

The traditional lean-back videos, you throw on the big screen. And when you want to dig in and lean forward, you do it on your iPad or iPhone. It’s the same app running, just on two different screens. And if what’s on your iPad is more interesting than the video on the big screen or you want to share it with everyone else in the room, pause the video and throw the Twitter stream or data visualizations up there. Or don’t pause the video, just overlay it on the screen. Take control of the experience.

Right now, the only control you have over TV is to change the channel. What if you could essentially control the graphics, or dive deeper into areas you want to learn more about? The only way this is ever going to happen is if TV apps are designed to make such exploration feel natural. And it’s not going to come from the TV industry. People in the TV industry generally don’t think this way. They package up video and present it all ready to consume. No, the best TV apps are going to come from app developers who ask themselves how they can use software to make TV better.

So you tell me, what is a TV app?

News.me: Rebuilt From The Ground-Up For The iPhone

When betaworks and a team from the New York Times put out the News.me iPad app last year, it was a forward-thinking experiment on using your Twitter network to filter the news. It was a little bit too forward thinking, as it turns out, with its multiple views of what people in your social network were reading. But the News.me team learned from it and redesigned the entire experience from the ground up for the iPhone app, which just went live today in the iTunes store.

While the News.me iPad app never really took off, its daily news email became a quiet hit. It is a once-a-day summary of the top news your friends are reading on Twitter. The engagement rates on the email product were through the roof, so the team took that as its new starting point. “After seeing the reaction to that,” says News.me general manager Jake Levine, “it became clear to us there is this overwhelming need for a social discovery experience built for news.”

Unlike the iPad app, which never rolled up all of your social news into one feed, the iPhone app does exactly that. (Instead, you had to click on each of the people you follow on Twitter one at a time to see their social news view). The News.me iPhone app presents you with a single, unified stream of the top news stories across your social networks. You can log in with Twitter and now with Facebook too, and then it shows you not only what the people you follow are sharing, but what they are seeing and reading in their feeds.

“There is an opportunity to build a new network for news on top of Twitter and Facebook,”says Levine. “There is too much crap on Twitter and Facebook, and people need help wading through it.”

The iPhone app shows you both the article headline and the conversations around it. But the articles come first instead of the Tweets and status updates. It shows you conversations at the article level, with comments below. This combination of headline and picture, with social comments below is a compelling re-ordering of the way we normally “read” news on social networks. It draws you into the story.

The entire app is designed to be used with one hand.When you click on a headline, you can often read the full story in the app (otherwise it opens up a browser within the app), save it to your reading list for later, and share it via Twitter, Facebook, or email. You can also comment on the article within the News.me app, or just leave a quick reaction (Ha!, Wow, Awesome, Sad, Really?).

I’ve been using the iPhone app for a couple of weeks, and I find myself wanting to tweak the algorithm, or exclude certain sources . But for the most part, it provides a steady stream of top news across my social networks, pre-filtered and ready to read.

Levine is right that there is too much noise out there and News.me is tackling the very hard problem of how to filter the news shared across your social networks. Its first pass is simply to pull out the headlines from the links and show that first, but then it looks for other signals such as how many times a story is shared or retweeted.

Filtering the news in a way that seems natural to different readers is extremely complex. News.me does this filtering job better than most apps using a combination of social signals and algorithms (remember, betaworks also owns bit.ly, so it knows what links people are sharing across the Web). But the key is that it boils this down into a simple interface.

With News.me, the news is only as good as your network. Just one more reason to follow people who share the news you care about.

Facebook Is Selling “Stories,” Not “Ads”

I am sitting here at Facebook’s marketing conference in New York City’s Natural History Museum (TechCrunch has a liveblog here), and the big message Facebook is trying to communicate to the brand advertisers assembled here is that they shouldn’t think about Facebook as a place to show people ads, but rather to tell them stories. Facebook is a “storytelling platform,” says VP of product Chris Cox. Facebook marketing director Mike Hoefflinger put it more bluntly: “We are evolving from ads to stories.”

Just as Facebook users now all have their new, more visual Timeline, brand pages will also soon adopt the Timeline design. Brands will love this because it will give them a much richer canvas to market to Facebook users, including features such as pinned posts and new ad types such as offers.

With pinned posts, Facebook is following in the footsteps of Twitter, which introduced a similar concept on its brand pages in December. But Facebook goes way beyond what Twitter is doing. For one thing, it will now be selling ads in your news feed itself, not just along the side. Twitter for the most part has resisted cluttering the main user streams with ads, (although Promoted Tweets can appear there under some circumstances). Facebook ads will continue to appear in the top right of your Facebook page, but they will also appear in your feed itself, on mobile, and as well as in the logout screen (37 million people a day log out of Facebook, so that is valuable real estate)

But remember, these are not “ads.” They are “stories.” And brands are encouraged to use these stories to create one-on-one relationships with consumers. Usually these stories take the form of things people would like to share like videos of sponsored athletes (something which Red Bull does). A successful ad on Facebook is one that people want to talk about, and thus share on Facebook with their friends.

So how will Facebook make increase the chances that those brand stories will be shared? Probably the most important announcement today for brand marketers is a new Facebook ad targeting product it announced today called Reach Generator. The most likely people who will share a brand’s message are consumers who are already Facebook fans of that brand. Reach Generator is simply a way to target Facebook ads, or “stories” to those fans in different places on Facebook (in their news feed, on their homepage, on their mobile devices, at logout). Ben & Jerry’s, a beta advertisers, found that marketing to fans doubled their engagement rates, and Facebook says other advertisers are finding similar results.

Targeted advertising up until now involved guessing which consumers across the Web would be most likely to be interested in a marketing message. Facebook’s twist on targeted advertising is to show ads to people who have voluntarily stated their affinity to a brand. And those fans then spread those ads to their friends, but only if they don’t seem like ads. So brands need to tell stories.

It’s a return to Advertising 101. The best commercials on TV are mini-narratives. The best magazine ads look like art photos. The best ads online spark a conversation.


Monday was my last day at TechCrunch, after more than four years and 4,000 posts. This blog is my new home on the Web. I’m keeping it simple. Just a WordPress blog where I will write about startups, technology, and media.

This is a personal blog. It is not a professional news site. I don’t plan to hire any other writers. I don’t even expect it to be my main project (but it is the first one I can share publicly). It will be personal in that I will be writing more for myself than to please readers, but if I please some of you along the way, all the better. I will use it to work through some ideas about media and technology, and as a sounding board, which I hope will inform other projects.

In a way, I am returning to blogging’s personal roots. But on the internet, the personal is very public, which is what originally made blogging interesting. Some of that got lost along the way as blogs became news sites. (Yes, I am partly to blame for that). News sites operate by their own logic which is hard to escape.

I won’t be chasing news here, although I might break some now and then. I am going to write about things I care about. Maybe some of you will care about them as well. What makes a good startup? Where is the nexus of mobile and social? What happens to media in a post-PC, post-TV world?

This will be my TechStream (the sub-title of this blog) because for me media and technology flow together. Over the past few years, media has become dominated by realtime streams—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. Media is increasingly consumed as streams of information. Also, more generally, here is where I will publish my stream of thoughts on tech.

No pressure, no deadlines, no noise. All signal.

Photo credit: Audrey