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The Battle for the Living Room, Then and Now

The set-top box is the gateway to the TV, which is the gateway to customer eyeballs.

Chubarov Alexandr/Shutterstock

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.


When I joined Creative Strategies 14 years ago, one of my research areas was the digital home. This era of my life is filled with fond memories of hacking together Windows-based home-theater PCs, connected storage networks to host all my media, various brands of digital media adapters, and running Ethernet cables all over my house simply so I could get the movies and pictures I had on my PC to my television. Much to the chagrin of my wife, my home was a working lab trying everything under the sun that promised to move media around the house. I’m confident that I had cobbled together as networked a home as anyone, but it was not pretty. For those nostalgic for this era, I put together a collage of some of my favorite digital living room solutions that passed through my home lab:

It is interesting to look at the past decade of digital home solutions and compare them with today. As it turns out, video game consoles proved to be the best gateway to connect the living room to the Internet. More people access the Internet on their TV through game consoles than any other piece of hardware to date. Streaming media players — from Apple, Amazon, Roku and many in the Google TV ecosystem, spanning Nvidia, Razer, Google with its Nexus Player and Sony integrating Android TV into its TVs — offer consumers broader choice beyond dedicated hardcore gaming consoles to access online services like Netflix and Hulu.

But these products are still waiting for their breakthrough. Which leads me to ask the question, what is it that will break the battle for the living room wide open and liberate our TV experience from the hands of monopolistic cable and satellite companies?

Some are cord-cutting, most are not

I believe the battle of the living room hinges on a “less is more” tactic. When it comes to our smart devices, I can argue that more is better. I don’t just want one smart device but many. I have a PC, tablet, smartphone and a smartwatch, and all play critical roles in my life. However, in the living room, less is more. Time and time again the saying proves true: “Consumers don’t want another box.” This is why the “one box to rule them all” philosophy applies for the mainstream consumer audience. For those who don’t need to watch all the live sports and news offerings still unique to a subscription TV service, they have a plethora of choice.

Based on our U.S. research, 75 percent of people surveyed say they currently pay for a cable or satellite service. While our surveys indicate that the masses are not quite ready to cut the cord, we do see an increase in intent to subscribe to on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Now. How do those services stack up in terms of usage in the U.S. market today? Here is what our surveys tell us: When it comes strictly to services used to access on-demand TV shows, Netflix is the clear leader with 45 percent. Hulu is in second with 16.8 percent, and Amazon Prime Instant Video is third at 15 percent. Netflix and Hulu were the prime combination subscriptions for those in our survey who have cut the cord.

When it comes to age groups dominating usage of on-demand TV services, 56 percent of 15- to 25-year-olds said they watched a full-length TV show via an on-demand service in the past month, and 49 percent of 25- to 35-year-olds indicated the same. These were the two most active age groups for on-demand TV services. The 35-to-45 demographic is at 37 percent, and it drops off steeply from there for those older than 45.

This makes it pretty clear what the demographic is for streaming services. But what I find interesting about that data point is how the younger demographic is consuming more of that media on other devices than the TV, and in locations other than the living room. Which brings even more fascinating dynamics to the battle for the living room discussion. However, that does not mean the battle for the large screen in the living room is not relevant. The question is, for what age group is it relevant? Answering this question is key. But what we know is that the 35-year-old age group and older were much more likely to pay for subscription cable and satellite services than those who are younger. This may have everything to do with life stage where older demographics have kids, like to stay home more and may generally desire content on the large screen more than the small screen. Whether this younger demographic follows a similar path will be interesting to watch as their life stage changes.

The battle for the big screen

The big screen is not dead. Liberating our TV content from the TV is absolutely key in every ecosystem. Any time, any place is how consumers want their content. However, the battle for the big screen is really the battle of the set-top box. The set-top box is the gateway to the TV, which is the gateway to customer eyeballs. Whether pay TV or pay on-demand services, the box remains the gateway. This is why cable and satellite providers will do everything they can to maintain control of that box, and will pay massive amounts of money to make sure certain content, primarily sports, remains exclusive to the box they provide you. Those competing in the set-top box space must, at least for the time being, focus on areas unique to their set-top boxes.

Apple, for example, may go big with an SDK, and give developers a playground to create new and exclusive applications for the big screen. Apple can use this strategy to drive demand to exclusive experiences the same way cable and satellite companies will with their content. Google may emphasize gaming with partners like Nvidia, and cater to those who want a more dedicated gaming experience along with all the on-demand services they use. My biggest beef with most streaming set-top boxes has been around the lack of exclusive offerings. Most, if not all, of what I get content-wise from boxes like the Apple TV, Google/Android TV, Roku, Amazon, etc., are all mostly the same. There is very little I can’t get elsewhere. This has to change if those providing hardware solutions want to differentiate against other set-top boxes.

This is one area that makes Nvidia’s Shield console unique. You can use it to access all the same apps and services as other platforms, but if you are a PC gamer you can also stream many of the most popular PC games using Nvidia’s Grid Gaming service. This feature makes the Shield Android TV box attractive as an on-demand streaming box to PC gamers, who are usually a completely different audience from console gamers. This is one example of many showing how this market can segment in order to differentiate.

This is essentially what I’m looking for. Things I can do with something like Apple TV or an Android TV offering that I cannot do with other hardware. This is where the battle for the big screen could start to diverge, as both the ecosystems of Apple and Google look to differentiate from each other and the cable/satellite companies.


Ben Bajarin is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc., an industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Reach him @BenBajarin.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.