One of the more interesting shifts to happen in the TV industry these days has been the rise of an entire advertising and content based ecosystem around smart TV manufacturers.
The three largest—Samsung, VIZIO and LG now all have their own FASTs (free ad-supported streaming TV systems) with hundreds of channels, their own measurement services based on ACR (automatic content recognition) data and their own advertising slots and ad sales teams.
In many ways they, along with Roku and Amazon who make streaming devices and license the interfaces from those devices, have become the streaming equivalent of MVPDs, acting as gatekeepers for those services that want to get their content in front of large numbers of consumers.
It’s taken on faith that a key factor in this development is that the smart TV OEMs have finally made interface and user experience a priority.
This is notable in that it was the lack of anything resembling a user interface that drove viewers away from smart TVs and into the arms of Roku and Amazon back in the early days of streaming.
But have things really changed?
I took a look at a brand new VIZIO V-Series and VIZIO M-Series, which feature the SmartCast interface to find out. I was skeptical because previous smart TVs I’ve owned had not really improved much on user experience since they were rolled out in the 00s and were clunky and hard to use.
This time I was impressed.
It wasn’t that the TVs had undergone a major overhaul, but rather a series of minor tweaks came together to make the experience both easier to use and more enjoyable.
Win Number One was the addition of a one-click method for rewinding 10 seconds at a time. This is key because most of the time when I rewind it’s because the dog started barking or I looked away from a show with subtitles and I just need to hear the last few lines of dialog.
In prior incarnations of the interface, the rewind and fast forward keys worked at various speeds, but invariably took me too far back or too far forward and I’d waste five minutes trying to get back to a spot anywhere close to where I’d left off. Having this feature on the new VIZIO remote makes short rewinds a snap and may be my favorite feature overall.
Win Number Two is that the remote now has built-in one-click buttons for a number of popular services: Peacock, Netflix
This makes turning on and tuning in much, much easier, especially when there is a specific show I am looking to watch, which is pretty much most of the time as I am a serial binge watcher.
Win Number Three is voice control, which almost makes up for the lack of a dedicated Hulu button. I just have to say “Open Hulu” and boom, it’s open. None of the Simon Says style games you have with Echo, where you have to remember to say “Alexa” before she’ll grant your request.
That said, on several occasions I did hit the “Voice” key on the VIZIO remote and said “Alexa, Open Hulu.” (Force of habit.) Which still gave me the same result, thanks to Echo’s integration with VIZIO (easy to set up via the TV’s main menu)
Win Number Four: The tiles representing the various apps are visible “above the fold”—no more scrolling down past various promos and recommended shows to find them. While the tiles are arranged in a filmstrip style (verus iPhone-like rows) the reality is that like most people, I spend 90% of my time watching the same four or five apps, and the buttons on the remote take care of most of them, so after the initial setup (you can rearrange the order of the apps), I won’t be spending a whole lot of time scrolling through the list.
Win Number Five: The sound quality is excellent. This is huge as anyone who has owned a flat screen TV over the past ten years and had to deal with muddled dialog can attest. But just when I’d gotten to the point of believing I could not have a TV without a soundbar installed, VIZIO surprised me.
This is more impressive because I was checking out two different VIZIO models: the M-series and the lower priced V-series. When the M-series offered no audio challenges, I was betting that I would encounter them on the V-series, but it sounded just as good. While the M-series does have a slightly better picture quality, the difference is fairly minimal, at least to an untrained eye like mine.
Win Number Six is the free WatchFree content that comes preinstalled on all VIZIO TVs. WatchFree is Vizio’s FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV service) and it’s powered by Pluto (I did not guess this, the Pluto branding is fairly prominent.) Pluto, in turn, is owned by Viacom
That gives WatchFree a broad array of content on 150 linear-like channels, meaning pretty much something for everyone.
This is true of most of the FASTs, but since WatchFree is built into VIZIO’s operating system, it’s easier to use and to find the shows you want to watch than an app.
As for the programming itself, FASTs have become popular in general because viewers don’t always want to watch something new, something that requires their full attention and concentration. Watching familiar “comfort food” TV allows viewers to lean back and just relax.
Smart TVs Are The New MVPDs And Interface Is A Big Reason Why
When cable TV made its debut in the 1970s and 1980s, its appeal was twofold:
(a) Viewers had access to a whole new world of programming on cable channels, with access to dozens of different networks, not just three. While much of what was offered on cable at the time was reruns of classic TV shows and movies, it was a break from the programming offered by the big three networks and offered a world of choice.
(b) The service provided an on-screen program guide that made finding a show much easier as viewers could see a synopsis of the plot and see what was on a range of channels all at once—no more flicking slowly through the dial and waiting for the commercial to end to see what was one.
Smart TVs now offer the same features, acting as gatekeepers to bring a wide range of programming, from giant SVOD services to FASTs to niche channels into the same interface, while (finally) making it easier for users to navigate through all the many options they now have.
It’s why so many viewers are spending more time on the smart TV OEM’s platforms and why advertisers are rapidly warming to the advertising models the OEMs have created that combine programming, attribution and data.
But at the heart of it all is a vastly improved user experience, for without that, the eyeballs would not be there.