Let's call it the baby sitter's dilemma.
If you go to someone's house and pick up the TV remote, chances are, you won't know how it works. You know the situation's bad when even a tech writer who also majored in physics at an Ivy League school is confused by her own TV remote.
"It's unbearable to me," moans Ars Technica writer Casey Johnston, of her remote's many cryptic buttons. "Sub.code? Comp/mix? I couldn't even tell you what one of those things do, but then assign them to the same button? It just doesn't make any sense."
So why, at a moment when both technology and TV shows are so terrific, are interfaces so clumsy and counterintuitive?
By interfaces, I mean both the actual, super-inscrutable remote controls and the unwieldy grid on our screens that many of us are forced to navigate to find what we want to watch.
And I have to confess the entire idea for this piece was inspired by Alan Wolk. His official title is global lead analyst at KIT Digital, and he writes a terrific blog called The Toad Stool. That's where I read his essay, "The TV Business: A Primer For The Uninformed," which elegantly points out how inelegant our TV interfaces are.
Wolk says our interfaces were designed to handle only six or seven channels, not 600 or 700. And there simply hasn't been enough incentive from the industry side to improve them. He predicts in the next few years, tablets like iPads will be the new remote and grid wrapped up in one.
"And that will finally give you a keyboard," he notes. "So if you're searching for a show, you can type it in instead of doing that awkward thing where you have to use the remote to move from letter to letter."
Jeremy Toeman agrees. "That grid guide that takes 15 seconds for every screen you're trying to load is just a pain," says Toeman, a tech entrepreneur among those helping turn tablets into something better than the next generation of remote controls. His company, Dijit, designed an app called NextGuide. It prioritizes shows you watch and lets you filter channels you're uninterested in. It includes Netflix. You can program it to record some programs remotely.
The Internet lets you do so much more with a tablet while watching TV. People watching NFL games might automatically receive statistics and information about players. Or if you're watching a drama, you can connect with other fans in real time on social media. All this sounds great to network executives like Jesse Redniss, senior vice president of digital for USA Network.
"Right now there really isn't a way we can use the grid to help market new people into our programming," he says, adding that tablets will open up new possibilities for cable channels and companies. "How do we gather as much information as we can about certain people, target demographics, and how do we create content that would interest them?"
So while you and I are watching TV in the very near future, our remotes will be watching us.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Call it the babysitter's dilemma. You want to watch TV but you can't figure out how to work someone else's remote. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why television remotes are so clumsy and not very unintuitive, right when technology and TV shows are so good.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: There's a simple reason why our television remotes are not cutting it. They were designed to handle only six or seven channels.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOWS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Marcia.
ULABY: Welcome to MASH 4077.
JIMMY WALKER: Dynamite!
ULABY: Casey Johnston writes about technology and she has a degree in physics from Columbia University. But even for her, using a TV remote is...
CASEY JOHNSTON: Exhausting. It's unbearable to me.
ULABY: Right now she's holding a remote covered with buttons. Some of the labels are so cryptic she has no idea what they do.
JOHNSTON: Sub dot code, comp slash mix. I couldn't even tell you what one of those things do, but to then assign them to the same button is - just doesn't make any sense.
ULABY: And it makes even less if you happen to be three years old and don't know how to read.
JOHN PERULI-ALMOND: Monster show.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD GROWLING)
ULABY: Twenty five years ago, a toddler like John Peruli-Almond would have needed only to turn a knob. Now he needs his dads to help him watch TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I see you've captured the Energy Monster.
PERULI-ALMOND: A monster.
NICK PERULI: That's your favorite?
ULABY: The average American watches over five hours of TV every day. So you'd think some smart person would figure out how make it easier to navigate. One of John's dads, Nick Peruli, wishes the remote could somehow tell when his son picks it up.
PERULI: So it would avoid going to channels that he can't watch.
ULABY: Like AMC when it's airing "The Walking Dead." How great if it went instead straight to channels for kids?
PERULI: The Hub and Boomerang, Sprout...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Nick Jr.
ULABY: The remote is a problem. But so is the grid. That's the unwieldy list of shows and the tiresome ways to navigate them, says tech entertainer Jeremy Toeman.
JEREMY TOEMAN: In this era of 500 or more channels, plus DVRs, plus video on demand, plus Netflix and everything else, navigating that grid guide - which takes like 15 seconds every screen you're trying to load - is just a pain.
ULABY: Toeman's company designed an app called Next Guide. It helps turn a tablet, like an iPad, into something better than a remote control. It mostly brings up the shows you watch and filters out stuff you don't like. It includes Netflix. You can record some shows remotely.
Tablets are the future of the grid and the remote, says technology analyst Alan Wolk.
ALAN WOLK: And then that will finally give you a keyboard. So that if you're searching for a show you can type it in, instead of doing that awkward thing where you have to sort of use the remote to go from letter to letter.
ULABY: Wolk says cable companies will actually save money by sending out tablets, because they'll be better than those old fashioned remotes and set top boxes.
WOLK: A) They're hard to upgrade and B) they actually require somebody physically coming to your house, taking it away and putting in a new one. So it's a really expensive thing to upgrade. Whereas with a tablet, you know, they can send it to you in the mail and they can upgrade the apps over the Internet.
ULABY: The Internet lets you do so much more with a tablet when you watch TV than a remote control.
WOLK: If you're watching an NFL game, they'll automatically send you the stats and the players and thing like that.
ULABY: Or if you're watching a drama, you can connect with other fans in real time on social media.
All this sounds great to network executives like Jesse Rednis. He's senior vice president of digital for USA Network
JESSE REDNIS: Right now there really isn't a way in which we can use the grid to help market new people into our programming.
ULABY: Tablets will open up new possibilities for cable channels and companies.
REDNIS: How do we gather as much info as we can about certain people? You know, target demographics. And then how do we start creating content that would basically interest them in what our show is about?
ULABY: So while you and I are watching TV, in the very near future our remotes will be watching us.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.