How Watching Television Has Changed: Navigating The Multi-Verse Of Screens

Ever since the debut of the internet, our daily lives have changed significantly.  The average person went from having a physical television set in their home to having a second screen, usually in the form of a desktop or laptop computer.  Then came the advancement of smartphones, which added a third screen in the home, and the fourth screen option followed when tablets entered the realm of portable devices.   But, today, the era of interconnected devices has led to a proliferation of screens in the home, car, work environment, and all around us as flatscreen televisions with OTT boxes  began to allow interconnection between cellphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, stand-alone bluetooth speakers and home-hub centers that can control everything from security to thermostats to lighting to sound systems and just about any device with cellular, wifi, or bluetooth capabilities. The “smart home” has become a reality in our every day lives.

Five years ago, it seemed like the future of interconnected “smart homes” would be a long way off.  But, here we are today, and all these things are readily available, if not already established, in our homes. Having the ability to surf the internet, check emails, receive text messages, and communicate through all these various screens has become a time-saving and vital resource. Yet, simultaneously the ease of access and time-saving features have also resulted in a lot of confusion on how to make all these screens communicate and work together.  It has also created a seemingly endless universe of online content.

For the average person, watching television is a broad-ranging and all encompassing universe of content.  It can refer to the old-fashioned way of receiving shows or content by antenna, cable or satellite signal to a free-standing television set or wall-mounted flatscreen TV.  But, for most people, it is a small “black box” that sends data by cable, phone line, or wifi signal directly to the preferred screen-of-choice for the consumer.  

When you sit at home these days, do you actually grab a television remote and turn on a flatscreen TV? I suspect for many of us, it is more common to reach for a portable screen (tablet, laptop or smartphone) and just connect to the internet via wifi and select the app to watch as the preferred method of watching a show or film as it is just easier to reach for our laptop or tablet or phone and select Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime and start watching entertainment from there.  Yet, with the ease of access to online, streaming content, there also arose a variety of apps (websites) that offer thousands of preexisting television series and films, as well as offering an endless supply of new shows and films to watch.

In 2013, it was a easy choice to sign up with Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime to get access to the new content being offered exclusively online.  But in the intervening seven years, the choices have grown exponentially as more apps offer access to online streaming content. In the past 12 months alone, Disney+, AppleTV, HBO Max, and Peacock launched to add to established apps like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access and other television channel apps that had rushed to make their “televised” content and catalogue of older shows available online.  It has been a race to see how fast every network, studio and channel could get their apps up and running and their preexisting catalogue of shows made available for online viewing, whether it was through HBO, Showtime, Starz, Cinemax, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, The CW, Discovery, History Channel, Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, ESPN, Travel Channel, BBC America, Telemundo, Nickelodeon, TBS, TNT, or any one of the hundreds of content-creators suddenly rushing to claim their portion of the streaming audience.

Getting entertainment content (e.g., shows and films) to consumers is the key goal these days and acquiring the necessary hardware of a screen with wifi signal is the easy part.  The difficult part is actually getting access through an app or website to the content you want to watch.  Netflix and Amazon Prime have always been paid-access only.  Thus, you had to be a member to watch shows or films on Netflix or Amazon Prime.  The same was true with Hulu, AcornTV, BritBox, Sundance Channel and a bunch of other app-based internet sites. Then came ancillary and supplemental sites, like The CW or CW Seed and NBC and ABC, that could give you free-access to their previously-televised shows.  Then came the hybrid sites like CBS All Access or YouTube Red where some content could be accessed for free, and there were paid-for-membership levels with access to those sites’ original shows and films.  

These days, nothing is really “free” anymore.  You have to pay for internet-access, then pay individual app-access or site-access monthly (or yearly) fees in order to watch a show or film online.  That is on top of the cost of the flat screen, OTT box (Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire), and/or tablet or phone that you choose to use to access the internet and all the apps and websites.

This is the expensive reality we now pay in order to have the convenience of watching everything our hearts’ desire on the internet.  To watch THE MANDALORIAN or the upcoming HAWKEYE or LOKI series, you have to pay for Disney+.  To watch the upcoming FRIENDS special reunion, you will have to subscribe to HBO Max.  To watch the upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS television series, you will have to be an Amazon Prime member.  To watch the new seasons of THE WITCHER or LOCKE & KEY, you will have to have Netflix.  To watch the new reboot of DEXTER or the new series HALO, you have to subscribe to or pay for access to Showtime.  To watch the upcoming Korean drama series PACHINKO, you will have to pay for AppleTV.  

What used to be a refuge from the increasingly high cost of paying for cable or satellite access to television shows has been replaced by the monthly-access fees for each network or website offering the shows and films you want to watch, and all those monthly app fees start to add up to a hefty monthly bill.  In the May 24, 2020 article: “Which Streaming Service Do You Actually Want?” the various streaming apps and their fees are listed in detail.

The streaming world of shows and films is now much more complex and expensive.  For the thrifty person, you subscribe to Netflix for $8.99 per month and have access to a library of television series and films that you could not possibly watch all in one lifetime.  The same can be said if you choose Hulu for $5.99 per month or Amazon Prime for $8.99 per month. Additionally, CBS All Access, Peacock, HBO Max are also great choices if you want access to an extensive library of old and new shows and films to watch.

As it stands today, we are inundated with screens and we have access points to information literally at our fingertips through a multi-verse of screens.  You can just get on your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or your smart-TV and scroll or and search through each app to see if it has what you are looking for.  Once upon a time, people turned to newspapers, magazines or the TV Guide to keep up to date on what new and existing shows and films were going to be broadcast.  Yet in this new multi-verse of screens and apps, there is no one source of information on the thousands of shows offered through each online content-provider.  You cannot even just log into a website and see an A-to-Z list of shows or films as every single app or site requires you to somehow know ahead of time what you are looking for.

This equates to a rather curious state of how you acquire information and how that then influences what you check-out or when looking for a specific show or film to watch.  It is almost as if we all are learning by osmosis through our internet-exploration and interactions what content to look for.  For some, that information comes as we scroll through Twitter, seeing headlines or recommendations; for others, they see advertisements on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.  Even more surprising is the reality that anywhere and everywhere you travel online, you are seeing advertising tied to prior purchases and cookies from literally every site you have visited on your computer, tablet or phone as A.I. (artificial intelligence) “bots” follow your “digital footprint” to curate-content and referrals based on your history of purchases and key word searches. Google, Yahoo, Firefox, Safari, Facebook, Twitter and all the sites are all tracking and guiding you towards products and shows that its A.I. programming has determined will match your interests and which sites/apps you will likely buy or pay for access to.

2021 is the year that artificial intelligence is not only watching your every move through GPS contained in your smartphone or laptop or tablet, it is also carefully tracking your internet searches and sites that you visit and how long you are there and if you buy anything there.  The “eye in the sky” is actually just A.I. computers analyzing the endless internet cookies and data-footprints to curate a better internet-navigation/search feature for you based on your personal internet and/or GPS history.  

As any internet security consult can verify, there is no real way to navigate and use the internet without leaving some kind of digital footprint that affects what you see in searches and guides you to various sites.  You have heard how your physical location is always visible through GPS in your phone — even when it is turned off or if you put it in an aluminum bag — artificial intelligence is tracking you everywhere. That is the contract that you sign up for when you buy and use a cellphone, tablet, or laptop.  These devices are designed to gather data, transmit it to the A.I. system and then provide useful, curated content to you that will be of better use to you rather than as if it randomly provided data that had no relevance to who you are.

Sounds a bit spooky and creepy, doesn’t it?  But that is the world we currently live in.  It is the data-contract that we agree to when we purchase and use all these “smart” devices.  The devices are only “smart” if they can communicate to each other and can curate based on our personal preferences, purchases and data to provide a useful service. So when Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or HBO Max recommends 3 or 4 shows for you, it is actually a different recommendation for each person.  In order to provide the best service, each website/streaming provider has an A.I. system that collates your internet/GPS data in milliseconds so that it can then provide you with a list of relevant options of shows and films to watch.

The world we live in is controlled by 2 things: (1) access — to the multiverse of screens, and (2) data — content curated with personalized recommendations to get you to purchase a service or product, or in the case of entertainment, provide shows and films that will be tailored to your interests.

So what does that mean to you? It means that you do not have to search or work very hard to figure out what you want to watch because an artificial intelligence system has already done that for you.  You just have make the ultimate selection.  

For content-creators, this is the conundrum: how do you get your product before the intended audience? How do you advertise it and get the word out that your new show or film is available for watching?  That’s the trick.  You can create all the content you want these days, but ultimately, the process of advertisement and gate-keeping recommendations will be done by artificial intelligence. It is a good thing, but also incredibly frustrating as the digital internet realm now dominates most of our daily routine and yet we have so little control over navigating it.  

As an entertainment reporter, it is also just as murky and unfathomable.  How do I know that my recommendations are getting to the right people? Oddly enough, I am finding that the A.I. computers are doing a remarkably good job at getting recommended content before the interested consumers.  I just no longer see that interaction or the affect of my work product anymore as it is happening instantaneously through algorithm searches and A.I. content-curation.  Thus, it can feel like you are shouting into the void when you do not hear get a response or even an echo back.  Yet, through the multi-verse of screens and endless digital realms, each “shout” is heard and processed by artificial intelligence and computed into its algorithms for maximum effect on the intended audience.  Even better, that audience does not have to speak the same language or even know that you exist since the A.I. makes the modifications and sends your recommendations off into the vast world of the internet and uses that information to guide the intended audience to where it needs to go.

Then the question becomes: do you even need to make recommendations or provide information to aid people in finding shows and films that may interest them?  That is the genius of the system: it does because artificial intelligence depends on data.  It cannot create out of nothingness.  It depends on humans to provide that data, and data is more than just tracking digital-footprints and prior purchase history and physical GPS movement.  The special ingredient that humans provide is our ability to look at something and have an emotional reaction to it.  When it comes to art, music, film, television, streaming shows, or anything that is intended to invoke an emotion, artificial intelligence is unable to replicate that emotional reaction and, thus, is dependent on humans to express those emotions that then fit into the artificial intelligence algorithms.  

What separates humans and artificial intelligence is emotions.  That is the secret to everything.  A machine is still dependent on coding and cannot fathom or intuit what emotion human will respond with when we see art or entertainment.  Art and entertainment is always subjective and requires a subjective response.  Thus, it makes human reaction an essential component to A.I. effectiveness and usefulness.
For example, you have probably had the experience where you login to Netflix and wonder where it got the idea that you would be interested in a certain type of show.  That was done by A.I. algorithms based on data acquired from the emotional response of a person who either input data directly or who behaved in a manner suggesting a specific emotion.  It can twist your mind in knots contemplating the symbiotic relationship between user and A.I., specifically in the entertainment world.

But rest assured, the human element and human response remains as essential as ever.  So as you may feel like you have entered a vast world of never-ending content options every time you log online to find a show or film to stream and watch, it is actually a curated-content algorithm coming from an A.I. that has processed thousands, if not millions, of human reactions to ensure that what you see in your selection will be the closest match to your interests. It may not be perfect, but no machine-generated recommendation ever is.  

So, as you log on, surf the web, and go in search of streaming content, always remember that the unseen A.I. has been working diligently to find the best possible match.  You just have to choose which screen you want to use (e.g., the access point) and which site or app to access that content through.  Soon, there will be a way for an A.I. to match you to the best app as well.  I am not sure if I will feel thrilled or somewhat uneasy when that day comes.  But, for now, enjoy the multiverse of screens and have fun surfing for that which brings you joy from the vast array of entertainment and art that continues to be created for a world of people seeking beauty, escape and entertainment on the internet.