I have nothing against television, cable or otherwise. I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s in the generation that came home from school, turned on the TV, and kept it on until bedtime. Growing up, I was the guy people asked about pop culture references as if I had a nascent Google search engine in my head.
Getting my first cable box was a rite of passage akin to my first car, apartment, and domain name (joelozito.com, in case you’re wondering). Of course, when it came to selecting the cable package, I went with basic cable. What was I, made of money? Later, after a promotion or two, I added on HBO just to flaunt how well I was doing.
I was a clicker; I didn’t stay on one channel for more than a few minutes. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Men aren’t interested in what’s on; they’re interested in what else is on.” It’s funny ’cause it’s true. So imagine my surprise when I became a cord cutter.
It all started in the mid-90s, ironically, with the advent of the DVR. Suddenly, I wasn’t at the mercy of the TV guide—I could now guide the TV. What did I need all those other channels for? And just when the DVR was reaching its limit—I mean literally getting filled to capacity—Internet streaming swooped in to save the day. Now, thanks to Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and a handful of others, I can watch (or binge) what I want when I want it. These are the new channels. These are the ABCs, NBCs, and CBSs of the 21st century.
A handful of “traditional” and nontraditional channels have embraced this sea-change and created streaming apps of their own, like HBO GO or FOX NOW. Yes, life is but a stream.
But still, there remains a rarefied stratum of “appointment television”—shows that either broadcast live (for example, the Super Bowl or the Oscars) or must be viewed when they air (Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad). For these select few, the cord cutters have suffered. But the tides appear to be turning there as well.
HBO, bless ’em, has started placing Game of Thrones episodes on HBO GO right after they air live. And the NFL streamed the Super Bowl live via its app this year. Of course, as with anything, there’s a catch. All of these apps require a contract with a cable provider. In other words, you still need to pay for a full cable package to get access to the app. Why not, for example, allow consumer to watch content via the app for a discounted rate or on a pay-as-you-go plan? Baby steps.
So let’s assume you have a cable subscription but were away from your TV during Sunday night’s Oscar broadcast. Well, you’re in luck! For the first time ever, ABC was going to stream the Oscars live via its app. This was truly a step forward for an event that has struggled to attract a youth audience. (Remember the James Franco/Anne Hathaway stoner-friendly edition?)
Here’s the only problem: ABC’s app didn’t work. Neither did its website. At precisely 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, the live stream—which was working so well during the self-congratulatory red carpet “backstage pass”—suddenly stopped working entirely. It briefly returned during Jared Leto’s much-deserved win, then crashed again for the remainder of the night.
So what’s a cord cutter to do? Where does he turn? Why, to Twitter of course. And, as it turned out, following the Twitter tirade was more thrilling than any Oscar race since Ordinary People beat out Raging Bull. No sooner had I read the latest posts than twenty more had queued up. The virtual vitriol was ceaseless:
Well, if you’re going to advertise a live stream for the Oscars, make sure it actually works @ABCNetwork
— nugkA abguT (@abgut) March 3, 2014
— Kate Pais (@katelikestoread) March 3, 2014
— Chad Jarrett (@GGiWin) March 3, 2014
— BrittanyFuerstenberg (@b_fuerstenberg) March 3, 2014
I would like an Oscar for my harrowing performance trying to get this ABC live stream to work. #oscars
— Sal Gentile (@salgentile) March 3, 2014
And the Oscar for the worst live stream goes to @ABCNetwork
— ram (@tarkwather) March 3, 2014
Meanwhile, both the ABC app and website were gasping for air: “Please try another stream later”; “Unable to connect to server”; “Unable to find content;” and, the worst of all, the endless “Loading…”
From the variety of error messages, it was clear someone was working on the problem, but a solution was not presenting itself. As a technologist, I could feel the pain of the engineers feverishly spinning up content delivery networks and cloud-based server environments trying to cope with the onslaught of traffic.
It should have worked. This is difficult work but it isn’t impossible. It worked flawlessly during the Super Bowl, which averages about three times the viewership of the Oscars. Why was the NFL able to figure this out but not Hollywood? Could the answer be more sinister than we think? Could there be a moustache-twirling villain or a conspiracy theory so dark it could be ripped from one of Hollywood’s own blockbusters?
Maybe it was the frustration of the evening, but there were certainly enough tweets to make you think twice:
— Dan Kanter (@DanKanBHills) March 3, 2014
Well @ABCNetwork thanks for having your stream work for the red carpet and then die when the show started.
— Zach Kinion (@zachkinion) March 3, 2014
ha! @ABCNetwork oscars stream has crashed 9 minutes before the show starts.
— Elliott Whitton (@ewhitton) March 3, 2014
We may never know. After all, this isn’t healthcare.gov. There won’t be a Senate hearing about this one. ABC will quietly ignore the tragic incompetence with which it alienated a chunk of potential viewers, and not just any viewers—the kind who remember. This is the Internet generation. They may never know what a dial-tone sounds like. They may never know what a TV Guide is or when a show “airs.” They want what they want when they want it. On their terms, not beholden to outmoded corporate guidelines. These are the viewers that might create the next generation of award shows as the Oscars continue to struggle for relevance.
In the end, ABC’s inability to embrace Internet streaming liberated me. By watching the Oscar highlights the next day, sadly in less than 10 minutes, I came to realize that I really didn’t miss the experience of watching it live. Next year, it’s likely that the streaming issues will be fixed, assuming there’s no truth to the conspiracy theories, but I’m not likely to try it again.
But ABC did worse than turn me off from the Oscar pageantry; they drove me into the arms of another content provider. After twenty minutes of “retries” and “reboots” and “OK” buttons, with ABC’s broken experience timing out in the background, I turned my attention to True Detective on HBO GO. That Matthew McConaughey is quite an actor. I hear he won an award recently.
Joe Lozito is chief technology officer of customer engagement at Rosetta.