Tim Cook: Current TV interface is ‘terrible, awful; stuck in the 1970s’

“In the wake of Apple’s newly announced gadget lineup, CEO Tim Cook sat down with Charlie Rose to talk present and future products, iCloud, Steve Jobs’s legacy, and more,” Stephanie Mlot reports for PC Magazine.

“During the first installment of a two-part interview, the CEO dove into the rumor-infested waters of the Apple TV set, which has long been discussed in the media, but has yet to come to fruition,” Mlot reports. “He remained coy on the subject of a branded TV set, though. ‘There’s lots of things we’d like to work on that we have interest in, but we know that we can’t do everything great,’ Cook said, adding that “TV is one that we continue to have great interest in.'”

“‘TV is one of those things that, if we’re really honest, is stuck back in the ’70s,’ Cook said, waxing poetic about how much life has changed in four decades, while the family television set remains a relic,” Mlot reports. “‘It almost feels like you’re rewinding the clock and you’ve entered a time capsule and you’re going backwards,’ he said of the boob tube. ‘The interface is terrible. It’s awful.'”

Read more in the full article here.

Related article:
Full video: Apple CEO Tim Cook’s interview with Charlie Rose – September 14, 2014

58 Comments

    1. Saying “the boob tube is a wasteland” is a little like saying “restaurants are a wasteland”. If you have the ability discriminate, you can find some good TV programming amongst all the crap just like one can seek and find good food amongst all the junk.

      1. 1984, John, and ecrabb are correct. The business model of television, like most media, has abandoned any pretense of offering the public useful and timely service or pro-societal information. It is now based on pushing advertising to the lowest common denominator IQ viewer and creating the maximum controversy possible — a wasteland indeed. Even former channels and programs that did offer intellectually stimulating and educational content have dumbed down their offerings to meet the 15-second attention span of the typical viewer. Thank goodness there are still a few filmmakers like Ken Burns and public broadcasters to fund in-depth factual/historial/educational material. “Reality TV” and sitcoms are universally pathetic and getting worse.

  1. I really really do hope that they have a solution to the cable – take them all or none at an outrageous price- attitude. This really needs to be the “next Big Thing”. If they want to disrupt an industry, cable TV is ripe for the taking and probably only Apple can give us a new beginning.

    1. New TV hardware/software is coming within six months. Given comments we’ve heard for three years I actually expect the goal is this fall. You’ll get faster streaming from Mac and iPhone, a unified login for channels, and a small number of major channels “a la carte” even without cable. It grows from there. (Not fast enough, unfortunately.) I think the goal is a la carte for all. I think the fallback is a cable pass-through that gets fully interpreted by TV and presented with Apple’s interface. Really expect it in October.

    2. Everybody complains about bundling, but nobody seems to recognize the economics of the alternative. Let’s make it simple and focus on one (hypothetical) content provider that splits prime time between science fiction programming and wrestling. Even though hardly anyone watches both categories, you can only take both or none at all; there is no option for subscribing to just one. Look at their books:

      On the expense side, (1) science fiction programs are, almost by definition, scripted dramas with extensive special effects. The cost per hour of programming is quite high. (2) wrestling just involves setting up some cameras at an event that would happen anyway. The most expensive part is probably buying the broadcast rights from people who need the coverage to enhance their ticket and merchandise sales. The cost per hour is quite low. (3) So, I can imagine that the science fiction half of the schedule represents two-thirds to three-fourths of the content provider’s expenses.

      On the revenue side, (1) science fiction has a sophisticated but small audience, so ratings (and therefore advertising rates) are low. (2) wrestling has a mass audience, so ratings (and rates) are high. (3) Because the two are bundled, the subscription revenue from cable and satellite systems is evenly divided. (4) So, one can imagine that wrestling provides about two-thirds of the provider’s revenues. In short, wrestling is heavily subsidizing the science fiction programming.

      If the two are unbundled, so that consumers can purchase individual programs or just the half they want, the subsidy stops and we see: (1) wrestling has fewer costs and higher revenue, so the provider can cut the subscription price and still make as much money. (2) science fiction has higher costs and lower revenue, so the provider must raise subscription prices significantly (in our example, perhaps 400%) to make a profit. The higher prices will drive down ratings (and advertising revenue), so subscription prices will go into an inflationary spiral until the service is priced out of the market.

      That’s why SyFy has wrestling, A&E has Duck Dynasty, the HBO bundle has lots of old movies, and so forth. If everything were al a carte, we would still have the old movies and reality shows, but quality programming would be very expensive if it is available at all. That may be where we are headed, but it has significant costs.

      1. The economics are that a few cable channels garner a huge chunk of your money. ESPN’s various channels amount to $6-8 of your cable bill even if you never watch a minute. Most other channels are quite a bit cheaper. Chances are that if you were to pay to the companies even twice what the cable company gives them it would still be far cheaper for the consumer to go a la carte.

        The problem is companies like Disney bundle their unpopular channels with ESPN. So the Cable company has to put them in their tiers or else they don’t get ESPN. The same goes for other tent pole channels. This is why our cable bills are ridiculously high. Add to this the local channels that charge for carrying their ad-filled content. Why they should get paid a dime for something picked of the public airwaves is beyond me. They’re already getting paid by the advertisers. Why do they need to dive in our pocket?

        What I’d like to see is Apple TV be able to stream content from some channels (like news channels and even ESPN) on an a la carte basis. Add to it a lower price to watch a TV series. And I’d like to see them not require that I enter my password from my cable company. I have Time Warner Cable, one of the worst, least friendly cable companies in the country. They have no deals with any of the app providers. NONE of the apps from ABC, Disney, TCM or others work because TWC hasn’t signed a deal to allow them to work for their subscribers. How about making me a subscriber directly? And why the hell is ABC locking me out. Their stuff is paid by ads. Why don’t they want me to see their ads? Because Time Warner Cable isn’t spiffing them.

        1. Ah, comrade! Let me explain capitalist system. If you could subscribe to HBO or ESPN without subscribing to cable, you would be less likely to get cable. The cable company would either pay less for those services, since they are no longer bringing customers to the bundle, or drop them, so the provider would lose revenue unless it raised prices… which the market might not allow.

          Why do local stations using the free public airways charge cable companies? Because the equipment and labor at the station are not free, but are making the cable company a boatload of money. The locals and broadcast networks are far more important than ESPN in bringing customers to the bundle; they are an essential part of the cable business model.

          When the law required stations to allow rebroadcast for free, they had to share their customers with 250 competitors, not just 4-5. Ratings went down, revenues went down, profits went down (disappeared in smaller markets), while cable profits grew exponentially. The change in law allowed the stations to share in the wealth their enterprise was generating. We generally encourage that in America, comrade.

          1. Well, comrade, the re-transmission fees can be easily argued from the opposite end.

            Broadcast network are making their signal available to consumers at no charge. The size of their market is limited to those consumers who are within range of their broadcast signals. In order to increase their audience (and therefore advertising revenue), they have to build out the network of transmission towers.

            Now, a cable company comes along and says: “We will take your signal and re-transmit it to our subscribers at no charge to you, bringing you hundreds of thousands of new customers which you were unable to reach with your broadcast towers.” In other words, the cable company, which invested heavily in a wired network in order to reach their customers, is offering to share that network with a broadcaster at no cost to the broadcaster. And the broadcaster responds: “Yes, you can take my signal and re-transmit it to your customers, the ones whom we cannot reach, but you have to pay us for that privilege!” From this perspective, there is absolutely no logic. The programme that broadcaster produces is paid for by the advertising revenue. The consumers who watch this programme aren’t paying any subscription to the broadcasters; they are simply catching the programme with their antenna, for free. Cable company is offering to essentially expand the reach of that programme without having to invest in new towers.

            So, exactly where is the logic behind cable companies actually paying broadcasters for re-transmission services? This is pure greed and nothing more. Obviously, for cable operators to be able to offer a complete bundle to their consumers, broadcast networks have to be a part of it. Broadcasters know this and can easily blackmail cable operators (“No pay – no play!”). However, there is no logic (or fairness) to it.

            1. Ah then I can set up a taxi service using your car at night when you aren’t using it. I can make a lot of money using your property and it won’t cost you anything. What’s wrong with that? Since you are driving it on the public roads, what’s your complaint if the public–represented by me or Time Warner–gets to make money off your property and labor without paying you for it? The depreciation to your car, like the dilution of TV ratings, is just part of the game which you should accept without complaining.

            2. But that is exactly the opposite argument!

              You (the broadcast network) can set up a taxi service (re-transmit your programming) using my car (on cable operators network) without paying me. You can make a lot of money by selling additional advertising (ferrying more passengers) for the audience you can now reach by using my cable network (by using my taxi at night).

              What property or labour is there to pay for, that is not already paid for? NBC’s advertising rates (i.e. revenue they get) is set by their ratings. If cable companies refused to re-transmit their programming, their ratings would be severely diminished, as would their revenue. NBC (and other broadcasters) makes their money from advertising revenue, which depends on ratings. Cable company re-transmissions bring in ratings.

              On the other hand, cable companies make their money by essentially renting their infrastructure. Cable TV channels (basic / standard, as well as premium) sell their content to the cable operators. Depending on their business model, their revenue source may be cable operator fees alone (for premium channels, such as HBO or Showtime), or a combination between cable operator fees and advertising revenue. The primary point is that in their business model, cable TV channels don’t offer their content for free — they sell it through the cable operators, who bundle the content to their customers.

              There is NO logic in broadcast networks charging cable operators for the right to re-transmit their free broadcasts. This is a simple blackmail — because they can. They are essentially double-dipping (making money for their content through advertising, which is based on ratings they get from cable customers), then charging for the same content again. If I put an antenna, I could get NBC for free. But if I subscribe to Verizon FiOS, I have to pay for that NBC. Meanwhile, I have to sit through all the commercials, even though I’m paying for it.

      1. You mean those things that are copies of the iPhone only larger? Yehhhh, George. Such brilliance. “We’ll copy these 5000 distinct positive points of design and function of the iPhone… we’ll just make ours larger.”

      2. I hope you realize that Samsung did not make larger phones because they thought everybody wanted larger phones. They made larger phones because they did not know how to make a smaller phone with decent battery life.

      3. C’mon George, you should be able to do better than that. Looks like you need to give that brain cell of yours a long rest; it can carry the load on its’ own only so long.

    1. Agreed. My hunch is that the delay has little to do with hardware, and everything to do with the comb-overs running the TV and motion picture studios, and the oligarchs running the cable networks. They are terrified of Apple, terrified of change, terrified of doing anything to alter their business model. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

      Wrong. TV is broken. People are going around the industry to cut the cable, to view TV their way. But as long as the content creators, content owners and content distributors continue to act like the Soviets of the Cold War era saying “Nyet!” to any innovation, the status quo will be preserved.

      It took years of delicate negotiations to get China Mobile to sign up with Apple, and it’s been a win-win ever since. I don’t think of the lack of news as a lack of progress by Apple, or a lack of energy being thrown at this. But when you have an intransigent bunch on the other side of the negotiating table, progress can take years.

      We want it now. That’s the way fanboys will always be. But the reality of the situation has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with business. TV, movie and cable executives are, to put it delicately, a bunch of pricks with their heads up their collective pituitary canals. It will take time for them to get a clue.

      So as optimistic as I want to be, I sense this will take time. Meanwhile, Apple is waiting. And so are we.

  2. The problem is going to be coming up with a solution that works all around the world. Forgetting how you get the content, the rights issues are just going to be a pain in the behind.

    1. Please redirect your frustration. He’s not just tell us consumers the current situation is stuck to make us feel bad. He’s warning the content providers and the pipeline bosses. I hope they cooperate or get thrown under the financial bus when we finally get unstuck.

  3. Maybe not the 1970’s, but certainly the 1990’s. Every time I use the cable box interface, I am reminded of using TiVo, back when it was cutting edge tech. That was in the 1990’s, and TiVo did it better back then, compared to the horrid interface on current cable boxes.

    Instead of creating an alternative to Cable TV, Apple should instead partner with the cable providers. It would be a repeat of the iPhone strategy…

    1. Have you used the X1 or seen the X2? They’re much better than TiVo was (and still is) and include things like voice recognition. It’s still not what it could be, but to say that the box itself is stuck in the 90s is really an exaggeration.

      1. Next one is a joke. The hardware is horrible I’ve never had so many problems in my life. I escalated to Comcast and that was an absolute joke they never even returned my call after the first initial call. That tells me not as any surprise that they don’t know what they’re doing. Comcast the service and the people are a disgrace.

      2. I recently got a replacement for my cable box, because the old one broke. Sadly, the interface was identical. The only improvement was that the DVR in the new replacement had higher capacity.

        1. But was this the X1 or X2??? If you’re complaining about an old cable box from the 90s, then that’s like saying phones are stuck in the 90s because you’re still using a StarTac.

          1. I don’t know what “X1” or “X2” is… It’s the box that the cable company provides to me. And was brand new, in a new box.

            That’s my point… The standard cable box that they provide to their customers right now (or a few months ago in my case), that is NOT made in the 1990s (although it may have been DESIGNED in the 1990s), is archaic.

            Apple could certainly design an elegant system that accesses the same cable content, over the same cable connection (not an Internet-based connection like the current Apple TV). Existing cable customer get the exact same content they already have, with an MUCH better user interface. And there is no need for Apple to build its own service and to match cable’s content. Along with the cable-based content, Apple provides additional content and services over the Internet connection (what the current Apple TV provides).

            That’s how iPhone took over mobile. Apple did not create its own wireless network when iPhone was released in 2007. iPhone used existing wireless carriers (usually one per market), and accessed the same services as other phones. Over time, Apple added and enhanced its own services, most notably the App Store, to distinguish iPhone from the competition.

            That’s how Apple should approach TV. Become the supplier of the ubiquitous “cable box.” It can be “free with contract” to the cable customer. Cable provider pays Apple for them “up front” and collects the money back using the “rental fee” on the cable bill. Additionally, this “subsidy” is how Apple introduces the complete “iTV.” Like iPhone, have cable provider subsidize part of the cost. The upfront cost to the customer can then match (or even beat) the cost of “dumb” TVs with equivalent display specs, and Apple can have an acceptable profit margin for their complete “smart TV” (in an industry with typically thin profit margins).

            1. “I don’t know what “X1″ or “X2″ is… It’s the box that the cable company provides to me. And was brand new, in a new box. “

              Your argument is like saying phones are stuck in the 90s. When asked whether you have an iPhone 5s or 6, you reply, “I don’t know what an iPhone is, it’s just the standard phone AT&T gave me”.

              Ok, you’ve got a phone or cable box that sucks, but that doesn’t mean that new versions of those devices aren’t available that are actually really great.

              If you have Comcast, ask for the X1 box (possibly the X2 if you can get it yet). Compare it to the Apple TV. You might have preferences of one over the other, but the Apple TV interface isn’t inherently better and certainly less advanced (no voice recognition, no box networking, no DVR, etc…).

              My point here is that in 2007, Apple could’ve approached the cable companies and shown that they had a box that was unique and got the interface right, wherein nobody else could.

              Today, the Apple TV isn’t that device. It’s lacking many things Fire TV has, as well as Roku, not to mention what’s already built into many TVs, and even the better cable boxes are ahead of it.

              I say this having said back in 2007 to around 2012 that Apple should do a deal with the devil and offer to replace the cable box. Now, the cable companies don’t need Apple, and most customers don’t see the added value of the Apple TV.

              Apple’s best chance at the living room is to get off its butt and deliver. The Apple TV is hanging in there because of the ecosystem, but it’s really the weakest link in the entire chain. Apple could simply copy the Fire TV and get a huge boost with the Apple TV with support from developers (content, game and others), but instead they’re just “interested in the space”.

            2. Comcast is not some universal cable TV provider. Picking a mobile phone is not the same as picking a cable box, because you don’t typically “pick” the cable box. If you have to “ask” for a particular cable box, that probably means the service costs more and is not the standard offering for everyone. If everyone suddenly asked for it, it would likely overwhelm Comcast.

              And the opportunity for Apple may not be with replacing what Comcast (or whoever is designated the cable monopoly for the region) has as its standard “cable box.” For iPhone, Apple did not end up partnering with the #1 wireless carrier (at that time), in the U.S. It was with AT&T. So, the better move may be to partner with a strong but “alternative” TV service provider, such as AT&T U-verse. “Powered by Apple” would surely be a better marketing position (and point of distinction) for them than gimmicks, like being able to move your mega-TV around (“I love watching TV outdoors” – really?), recording six channels at once, or the really stupid “no more wires.”

              No one but Apple has the resources and talent to make it happen, and the ability to negotiate with TV service providers (whether it’s Comcast or someone else) on an equal footing, and actually take responsibly for the customer’s TV viewing experience.

            3. Comcast, which is pending a Time Warner Cable takeover does have an overwhelming share in the US. No other cable company has over 8% market share. It’s not like the deal with AT&T where AT&T had near 50% market share and users could switch. Comcast (along with TWC) is the sole cable provider in most of the United States.

              And yes, you do have to ask for X1/X2, unless a rep upsells you automatically, but that’s not much different from walking into a carrier store and just taking whatever they give you. It still doesn’t change the fact that there are better boxes/devices.

              Imagine the conversation Jobs had with Ralph de la Vega… “Ralphie… look at this Jesus phone… and only AT&T customers or those willing to switch to be your customers can get the Jesus phone. There’s nothing else like it!” And then the fine print in the contract saying that apps and content will go through Apple as Apple owns the customer. That fine print wasn’t much of a problem given the upside.

              Compare that to having the same type of conversation regarding AT&T U-Verse with 8% market share or anyone else, with a box that’s clearly inferior to other STBs, and trying to negotiate the content revenue split… only many more people can’t switch to U-Verse.

              The time to do an AT&T/iPhone type deal in cable is long since gone. Their best bet today is to get in cheap, essentially copy the Fire TV, open it up to developers and hope for some killer apps.

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