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If the Future of TV Is Apps, Who's Going to Be the TV Guide of the Future? Ask Siri.

How smart can Siri get?

Asa Mathat
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

If you want help finding something to watch on the new Apple TV, Siri is at your service.

But Apple’s robot assistant can’t give you personal service. The recommendations she gives you will be the same ones she gives everyone else with the new hardware. Siri can’t treat you any differently than she treats me, because for right now, she doesn’t have a choice — she doesn’t know anything about us.

Go ahead: Ask her to find you movies with Brad Pitt. And then the “good ones” with Brad Pitt, as Apple execs tell people to do when they show off the new box. Everyone gets the same list, which Siri puts together using metadata from sources like Rotten Tomatoes.

But what if your taste in Brad Pitt movies is different from Rotten Tomatoes’ taste in Brad Pitt movies? What if, for instance, you kind of liked “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which Rotten Tomatoes think is a “splat” and not worth your time?

Which brings us to a question: If the future of TV really is apps, who’s going to help us figure out what we should be watching on those apps?

On the one hand, you have the new TV platforms: Apple, Google, Amazon and (maybe) Roku. On the other, you have the apps, which operate separately from each other and from the platforms they work on.

HBO and Netflix and ESPN all know what I watch when I use their services. Depending on how sophisticated they are, they might be able to recommend stuff for me to see, based on what I’ve watched in the past. It doesn’t always work — Netflix says that because I scarfed down “Narcos,” I’m up for “The Great Food Truck Race Collection” — but it’s often helpful, and it’s certainly better than generic recommendations.

But the app guys aren’t sharing that info with anyone, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. They think this data is a key differentiator, and they certainly don’t want to give it to the likes of Apple. It’s important for Netflix to put money into “Orange Is the New Black,” but it’s equally important for Netflix to know I want to watch that show and not the Chris Tucker standup special it funded.

So there’s a business reason for keeping those silos intact. But that’s not helpful for me, the person who’s supposed to be watching The Future Of TV.

It’s nice — and essential — that Siri can find me stuff I’ve asked for. But if she can’t tell me I’m more likely to like “Project Greenlight” than “Transformers 4,” then what’s the difference between The Future Of TV and Good Old Dumb TV, where NBC hoped you’d watch “The Single Guy” because they ran it after “Friends”?

Here’s an alternate scenario: Apple TV becomes popular, which means Apple starts building up a big database of stuff I’ve asked Siri to find for me. Then Siri gets really smart (not a foregone conclusion) and can start suggesting stuff for me based on what I’ve asked for in the past.

“Hey Peter. Remember when you asked to see ‘Mr. Robot?’ You might also like a bunch of the great ’70s conspiracy movies, like ‘The Conversation’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor.’ No, thank you.”*

This seems like a good thing for me, the Future Of TV watcher, and good for Apple. Not so good for the likes of Netflix, since this nudges them closer to “people who have things to watch” and away from “people who find me good things to watch.”

Then again, it looks like this kind of end-run is what Apple (and Google) is planning to do with all of its apps — the OS finds what we want, and we don’t have to worry about what app is doing the work.

So if the future of TV is apps, then maybe Apple thinks the future of TV also involves Apple acting as my TV guide — whether the TV programmers like it or not.

* What about privacy? Isn’t privacy a big deal? Yes, but also no. Apple has been pointed about the fact that it doesn’t know what you watch on Netflix or any other third-party app, and you would certainly freak out if Apple started dipping into your Netflix history without your permission. But you might be okay with Apple looking into your Netflix history with your permission, and with the right safeguards. More to the point: Apple already tracks the songs you listen to, and everything you download from its app stores, and offers up suggestions based on those actions. And with enough Siri queries, it wouldn’t need to know what you watched on Apple TV to know a lot about your habits — just what you asked about.

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