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I have a problem, and I think I’m not alone: Getting TV is too complicated and too expensive. I know what a solution might look like, and if someone can build it and charge just a little bit for access, they might become very wealthy.

Apple TV+

Alternatively, if someone could build an open-protocol-based co-operative tool to fix the problem, they’d be a benefactor of humanity.

Let’s call the thing I want a “Stream Automator”, Automator for short. I thought of “Streamplex” but there are already a few things named that; none of them look likely to be significant in the long-term but oh well.

Crave TV

Let’s make it personal · My family still has dumb-cable TV. It’s absurdly expensive and all anyone watches on it are live sports. We subscribe to a couple of streaming services, which give us access to maybe 20% of the really happening shows that people are talking about.

So, I want to dump dumb-cable and still watch the sports I like and the TV that matters.


Axiom: Subscribing to everything is not a sane option. There has to be a better way.

Complication: Sports coverage. In Canada where we are, there are two national sports streamers that offer disjoint packages. Then there are global services like DAZN.


It’s unreasonably difficult to discover exactly which games you can watch on which channels. For example, in recent seasons I’ve enjoyed watching the Toronto Blue Jays. For years I’d been an MLB.tv subscriber, but I dropped it because the Jays are blocked since they’re my “local” team (three timezones away), which is OK I guess because I can get them on one of those sports networks that happens to be included with our current dumb-cable package, but maybe not because we pay for some extra sports, and the dumb-cable company makes it really hard to figure out what exactly you’re subscribing for.


Complication: VPN. A member of my family (also in Canada) is an NFL fan and boasts that he watches any game he wants without paying a penny, via VPN magic.
[Is that legal? -Ed.] [I’ve no idea; that’s the point. -T.]

Complication: National borders. Here in Canada, if you want to watch HBO you subscribe to something called “Crave TV”, which gets you most of (all of?) the HBO stuff and some Paramount. Except for, you might do better going upstream with a VPN. But some of the streamers are smart about blocking them.

HBO max

The point isn’t “Canada is hard”; it’s that every country is going to have its own streaming-provider weirdness.

Complication: Your hardware. We have Roku but no AppleTV hardware. It doesn’t seem like that matters, I can ChromeCast Apple TV+, is that weird?


Also, one of the many irritants about our dumb-cable service is that it’s 720p with no upgrade path. We have a nice LG 4K screen but I’ve watched ballgames where the picture looked like my grandparents’ big console Color TV in the Sixties.

Speaking of that LG TV, it runs on WebOS, with loads of stream-provider apps, except for it’s really hard to turn any of that on without becoming a part of LG’s data-farming operation. Ewww.


Also, I haven’t figured out how to route the TV audio outfit back into the A/V receiver; this involves something called “eARC” which the TV and the receiver both claim to support but does not Just Work.

[Update: Writing this got me mad enough to take another run at it, figured it out. Seems like an OK Roku competitor.]

Oh, and our neighbor has a digital TV antenna up on his roof and he gets a whole bunch of mainstream channels free off the air with an absolutely fabulous picture, including marquee events like the Olympics and so on. Hmmm.


Complication: Streaming networks offer you lower prices if you sign up for a whole year. But if I want to watch Ted Lasso and Succession and Russian Doll and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and The Rings of Power over the next year, it becomes rational to switch subscriptions every month or two. At what cost? I dunno, I want someone to tell me.

The problem · It’s really freaking complicated and time-consuming and error-prone to discover what’s available from what providers at what cost. Also, the picture likely changes at least once per year. I have better things to do with my time than figure that shit out.

Prime Video

The Automator · In my dreams, I tell it where I am, what shows and what teams I want to watch and what hardware I have  — in natural language, forsooth, what are Big ML Models for if they can’t grok TV tastes?

It makes me a plan that lists the services I should subscribe to and when I should switch between them. I suppose it would be too much to hope for a tool that actually manages the subscriptions for me, but I would totally pay for one.


Side trip · At home, we’re currently watching Babylon Five because smart people told us it was good and a lot like Deep Space 9. We’re doing this by taking the Blu-Rays out of the local public library. So the Automator would get extra credit for knowing about that resource. A lot of classics are in libraries, which are apparently easy to talk to, check out the wonderful Libby app (for books).


I’m optimistic · Something’s gotta give, because the current economic structure for digital entertainment is just broken. Nobody’s willing to subscribe to all the channels.

Hey, I have another idea: Micropayments for watching individual games or shows. [Enough with the crazy talk, Tim! -Ed.] [*sigh* -T.]

[Thanks to Lauren for pointing out several complications I hadn’t thought of.]


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Tim (but not THE Tim) (Mar 04 2023, at 14:12)

What about subscriptions to _shows_? Not micropayments for one episode but a price for subscribing to a show. Less than what they charge for the service, but I bet each service that "owns" a show would end up making more money in the long run.

I don't know how automatable it all is because I don't think all the necessary metadata is available via any sort of API or even some screen you could scrape


From: Aleks Totic (Mar 04 2023, at 15:23)

> I haven’t figured out how to route the TV audio outfit back into the A/V receiver; this involves something called “eARC” which the TV and the receiver both claim to support but does not Just Work.

I might have a similar setup that I made work:

(Roku, Tivo, Wii) => LG TV

LG TV => soundbar

All players plug into TV, you want soundbar to be a speaker out.

The sound buttons on the remote should pass through to soundbar.

My main problem was that TV would switch my soundbar selected input when I switched TV inputs. Ex: when I switched TV input to HDMI1, soundbar would get switched to HDMI1 too. It is as if TV thinks soundbar inputs need to match TV inputs.

The magic trick for me was this. If your TV connects to soundbar as: TV:HDMI2=>soundbar:ARCinput, go into TV input setup, and label HDMI2 as soundbar. There is a soundbar built-in label you can pick.

This setup mostly works, every once in a while (biweekly?) I kind of have to have to rejigger it.

I do not watch sports, but I've settled on Roku's search to figure out "whom do I need to pay to watch this show".


From: Wayne (Mar 04 2023, at 16:58)

Some of what you want can be obtained from the services JustWatch or Reelgood. It doesn’t cover sports, and I’m not sure whether they cover Canada, but it seems that a service like what you want could be built on top of their databases.


From: Bryan Walls (Mar 04 2023, at 17:50)

You should be able to get Apple TV on Roku. Some older Roku hardware doesn't support it, though.


From: Wayne (Mar 04 2023, at 18:28)

Some of what you want can be obtained from the services JustWatch or Reelgood. It doesn’t cover sports, and I’m not sure whether they cover Canada, but it seems that a service like what you want could be built on top of their databases.


From: Paul Clapham (Mar 04 2023, at 20:33)

+1 for Libby. Not related to your TV viewing, but I recently found that it has free access to some magazines. They used to have Macleans, but it disappeared. What I regularly read through Libby are British magazines like Guardian Weekly. Beats waiting 5 weeks for it to land on my doorstep on Canada Post Magazine Day.

Paul Clapham



From: Bryan (Mar 05 2023, at 00:22)

Abstractly this is the same problem as newspaper subscriptions, albeit there are not shows to consider, but I guess there are still columnists and events.

Whoever solves this probably would have the technology and knowhow to role out two services that cover both domains …

… this is now on my Christmas gift list !


From: Simon (Mar 05 2023, at 02:20)

+1 for JustWatch having the base of what you describe. It does have sport now (which might still be in beta).


From: Nathan (Mar 05 2023, at 05:19)

Streaming is a failed solution. There are a few long-running shows my wife and I enjoy watching, and we continually have the experience where we start Season 1 of a show on one streaming provider which inexplicably only has (say) seasons 1-6. Then we switch to another streaming provider, which has seasons 7-9 (as well as 14-21, but not 8-13). It turns out that 8-13 are only available for purchase on Amazon Prime (in SD quality, no less) unless we subscribe to some additional monthly fee that is offered THROUGH Amazon.

People used to say, the DVD experience is terrible. Half the reason people pirate movies is because the piracy experience is more consumer-friendly than the DVD experience. When Netflix came out, I believe they proved that thesis. I'm sure plenty of people still pirate movies, but none of my friends who used to pirate movies do anymore...all of us have a small handful of streaming services we subscribe to whose selection is "good enough" that the paid, legal route is fine.

However, the show experience is still terrible, especially for shows with more than 6 - 8 seasons.

I'm curious what the next disruptor for streaming episodic content is going to look like. Spitefully, I hope it takes out most of the existing streaming services, because in their greed they have made things worse for the consumer, and when you live by the sword of capitalism I have no sympathy when you die by the sword of capitalism.


From: Andrew Reilly (Mar 05 2023, at 14:30)

Why is your LG TV's data farming worse for you than your Roku's? Apparently 50% of the profit in TV manufacturing these days is the "post-sale monetization", i.e. data farming.

Regarding finding services: the Roku's "search all the apps" feature does some of that, but isn't always reliable.

My biggest gripe with the whole streaming environment, compared to its DVD-based predecessor, is just how little content is available. Most of the time when I want to (re)-watch an older film, it isn't available on any streaming service. So the DVD gets another run. You'd think that with infinite data-center storage capacity they could keep everything available, but that isn't how the world of licensing and IP rights works.

Which is the flip-side of your original complaint of course, and why your dumb-cable subscription is so expensive. If you could only pay for the shows that you want to watch, there wouldn't be enough money in the system to subsidize production of the shows that don't work. And if the whole back-catalogue was available, there would be fewer eyeball-hours available to watch the new stuff. (Same applies to music and music streaming, but more-so. The long-tail is poorly supported, and I'm a long-tail kind of person, I think.)


From: Jason Carter (Mar 05 2023, at 15:26)

Google TV will aggregate a decent recommendations feed including live content from youtube TV. It includes Paramount and Apple and others, but not Netflix. I feel like Google does OK with this in the US but is likely to axe one or more of those services.


From: Mike S (Mar 15 2023, at 13:04)

Amazon's FireTV will also let you search for a movie across apps, and launch the app to play your show. It'll even show you different options if more than one provider have the show.


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colophon · rights

March 03, 2023
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