A Product Manager Watches TV

Cable is one of those products that everyone love to hate, but can't live without.

Until about 10 years ago, cable companies had zero competition, and thus, if you wanted to watch TV, you had to put up with your cable company's terrible customer service and high cost.

Fortunately for all TV-watchers, there's been some serious disruption in this industry in the past decade, and now cable companies have some real competition. Some TV consumers (especially Millennials) are even 'cutting the cord' - ditching their cable subscriptions entirely in lieu of streaming services. Because of this, most cable and satellite companies stepping up their product game, fighting to make their products more attractive, and focusing on improving user experience.

This is a very fun and interesting case study for product managers. 


Issues With the Traditional Cable Subscription

  1. Lack of choice: Users don't have a choice as far as their cable provider. The major cable providers have 'footprints' in the United States, so - for example - a customer must be in Comcast's footprint if they want their X1 product. Customers can't choose their cable provider, therefore are limited in their product choices. (This is why cable companies got away with offering crappy products in the past.)
  2. Lack of customization. Cable companies force customers into a cable package, and therefore customers must purchase channels they don't want. This really pisses people off. In order to get HBO, for example, customers are locked into paying for hundreds or other (crappy) channels they will never, ever watch.
  3. Inferior UI. Unlike Netflix and Hulu, a typical cable UI is a (terribly ugly) blue background featuring an old-school grid to display the guide. It's awful, and it's not intuitive to navigate.
  4. Confusing UX. Your cable remote probably has 1000 buttons, even thought you only use 10. (Hey, sounds like locking customers into 1000 networks when they only watch 10!) How do I search for something? No idea. It's a mystery. Navigation is like a puzzle that only those with years of experience can figure out.
cord cutter.jpg

The Competitive Landscape

  1. Traditional Cable: Comcast's X1 and Charter's Spectrum TV put a (badly-needed) fresh coat of paint on cable's outdated UIs. The new experiences are sleek, modern, and a huge improvement. Personally, I'm an X1 fan-girl, for many reasons that I outline in Episode 11 of my podcast.
  2. Satellite: I lump satellite providers like Dish in with traditional cable... without the fresh coat of paint. 
  3. OTT: Over-the-top providers came on the scene about a decade ago; the largest two are Netflix and Hulu. Prompting many TV-watchers - especially Millennials - to 'cut the cord', these services are cheap and can be cancelled at any time - perfect for the non-committal younger crowd. With these OTT providers now creating kick-ass original content, they're serious competitors to traditional cable.
  4. Network-specific apps (HBO, STarz, NBC, etc...): Practically every network now has its own app. In my opinion, this creates a very disjointed landscape - most people aren't going to pay $8 a month for all of the individual networks they want... unless it's HBO during Game of Thrones season. I'd pay at least $100 for that alone.

The Ideal Solution(s):

  1. The Premium Solution: Cable + OTT Integration: Premium customer also don't want to pay for a dozen different, separate TV subscriptions. What I want is one, singular TV service that offers all the content I want, on any device I want to view on, for one price.
    • I know most people hate Comcast but I actually think X1 is an incredible product and has set itself up to deliver this. With its extremely intuitive user experience, big & bold UI, and intuitive navitation, the only thing that's missing from this platform is Handmaid's Tale and Stranger Things - and all the other original content on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon that I want. If X1 were to allow me to view content on these OTT providers within my X1 experience, and pay for them as 'add-ons' to my cable subscription, Comcast's product would be unstoppable.
  2. The A-La-Carte (Cheaper) Solution: The ability for users to pay only for the content they want, meaning they get to pick the networks they want, and forgo the networks they're currently forced into that bring little to no value to the user.
  • One of my pet peeves is that cable subscriptions lock you into dozens (or hundreds) or channels that you don't want.
  • Customers should be able to choose only the networks they want and pay piece-meal. I bet most people would actually pay a premium to declutter their guide.
  • This wouldn't necessarily have to be done by a cable company. This could be a device with networks preloaded per customer specification.

Other Cable Problems that Could Easily be Fixed

If I were a product manager at a cable company, these are MVP items I would fix right now. 

  • Allow users to 'Marie Kondo' their guide. I really don't need to watch anything on the Golf Channel. Like, ever.  Why can't I just hide this channel from my guide? Even if I must pay for these crappy channels, can I at least hide them so I can ignore my anger at being required to pay for them?
  • Integrate Netflix and Hulu into my cable platform, even if I have to authenticate and pay separately for those services. X1 now offers Netflix in a separate area of their platform. It's a good start. Spectrum should do the same.
  • Fix the Search experience. X1 has predictive search dialed in. Other cable and satellite providers need to catch up. As the sheer volume of content grows, users must be able to easily find what they're looking for.
  • Personalization and 'Personalization +': Netflix is known for its personalization; no other TV provider suggests a category television as specific to my preferences as "TV Dramas about Friendship with a Strong Female Lead." I do realize this is tricky for cable providers: While most users typically watch Netflix on an iPad alone, historically families tend to enjoy their cable subscriptions together in a living room. Product managers need to figure out how to 'combine' profiles or add family members to their personalized profile.

TV is will only continue to evolve in the upcoming decade, and I'm excited to see what experiences their product managers come up with.