When it comes to TV, I'm not fussy. I just want access to all the channels and shows I pay my cable company a princely sum for each month, whenever and wherever I want to watch them, on all the gizmos I own. Is that too much to ask?
Apparently so. Lots of us have moved on from the quaint era when TV watching was something you did in front of, well, a TV. Sure, we still do that some of the time. But we are spending fewer hours in front of the tube and more of them with laptops, tablets, phones and other devices that are perfectly capable of receiving and displaying video. And we'd like our favorite shows to follow along.
The TV industry is still grappling with that concept. It's partly a technical problem: you can't get a show on your iPad or Android phone unless someone's put considerable effort into delivering it there, ideally in a form that's crisp and fluid rather than blocky and unwatchable. Issues of business models, however, loom even larger. Content owners are comfy with the decades-old system of being paid by companies that distribute programming via cables in the ground or satellites in the sky and some of them seem to find this Internet thing a little scary.
That's been illustrated in recent weeks by the bumpy launch of a cool iPad app from Time Warner Cable, the nation's second largest cable operator. (Full disclosure: that company was spun off from TIME parent Time Warner in 2009.) When it was rolled out on March 15, the program streamed 30 live cable channels to an iPad, effectively turning it into a portable TV. Not too portable, though: it only works on a wi-fi network connected to TWC broadband in a home that also subscribes to TWC's TV service.
Time Warner Cable maintains that this approach means it doesn't need to strike new deals with content owners or pay them heftier fees, any more than it does when a customer has two set-top boxes in the house. It may stun you to hear this, but not every content owner agrees. Two weeks after the app debuted, Discovery, Fox and Viacom squawked, and TWC pulled their channels. Then it sued Viacom, which sued back. After that, it brought back Fox's and Discovery's channels. I suspect there are more plot twists to come, at least until a judge somewhere chimes in on the TWC-Viacom dispute.
Meanwhile, the country's sixth biggest cable company, Cablevision, introduced an iPad app of its own on April 4 one with 10 times as many channels as Time Warner Cable's, thereby coming far closer to replicating the cable experience in all its overwhelming richness. Cablevision also has on-demand programming, whereas TWC offers live stations only. Like the TWC program, Cablevision's works only in a home with cable-TV service, but it doesn't require users to subscribe to broadband. And so far, it's managed to avoid crippling spats with content owners.
I haven't benefited from TWC and Cablevision's envelope-pushing apps myself I'm a customer of America's dominant cable provider, Comcast. (In most areas, it calls its TV service Xfinity TV, a practice that only confuses those of us who were perfectly happy calling it Comcast.) The company says it plans to introduce a live-streaming iPad app later this year; for now, it has one with selected on-demand shows and movies from 29 providers. The Play Now section of the Xfinity website is similar but meatier, letting you watch a variety of programming from 101 providers on a PC or Mac.
Xfinity on tablets and computers is a shadow of Xfinity in its traditional cable incarnation, and some big-name TV content remains AWOL (in legal form, at least) on the Internet, including American Idol and NFL games. (Me, I'm inconsolable over the lack of full-length episodes of Chris Matthews' Hardball; MSNBC posts only excerpts.) But absentees are far outnumbered by programs that are available online in one place or another. The challenge is figuring out what's where.
For instance, full episodes of the History Channel's Pawn Stars are available on both the Xfinity TV site and History.com, but its Monday-night stablemate American Pickers is only on Xfinity. Neither show is available in the Xfinity iPad app; Pawn Stars shows up on History.com on the iPad but won't play, apparently because of Apple's banning of Adobe's Flash Player which works out well for Apple, since it sells both shows at the iTunes store for $1.99 a pop.
To muddle matters further, deals between content owners and content distributors are often temporary. Once upon a time, Hulu had a smattering of full episodes of Mad Men; now it just hands you off to another site, Crackle, for clips. That means you need to head to iTunes or Amazon Instant Video and pay for complete episodes unless you can hold off until this summer, when you'll be able to watch every show from every season as part of a Netflix subscription.
You might lose interest in the whole project before you track down something you want to see. If you're watching TV on a PC or Mac, though, a website called Clicker does a nifty job of pointing you in the right direction for thousands of episodes and movies, in both free and for-pay versions. Sadly, though, it's not available in an iPad version.
I don't mean to come off as an ungrateful wretch. The online situation for TV lovers is infinitely better than it was a few years ago, and given that the modern era of tablets began just 13 months ago with the iPad's release, Hollywood isn't hopelessly behind the curve in figuring it out. It's in the interest of everyone who makes, distributes or watches TV that this stuff gets resolved and I look forward to the day when "TV everywhere" is the standard state of affairs rather than an elusive, tantalizing fantasy.
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he's @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.