One Site to Stream Them All

Posted on November 5, 2023 by psu

Back in 1999 the dream was born. This was the year the Tivo device first shipped. These days we use the much more sterile and generic term “DVR” to refer to things like the Tivo. But back then it was just Tivo.

What the Tivo did was capture broadcast TV as a cleverly encoded digital video file so that it could fit on the comparatively tiny disk that sat in the device. Then you could watch your TV shows whenever you wanted. You could even pause the show while it was being broadcast, because the machine would buffer maybe half an hour on each side of “live” so that if you had to go get snacks, or pee, or whatever, you did not have to miss anything that happened while you were gone.

Every nerd who used a Tivo or saw a Tivo being used instantly knew what they wanted: A Tivo in their computer that let them pick whatever shows they wanted on some kind of pay as you go basis. And, the ability to play back the resulting video files anywhere they happened to be on whatever device they happened to be sitting in front of. And finally, a way to not be beholden to the particular schedule the TV people wanted to dictate. Instead, the machine would just save the file for you whenever (time) and wherever (channel) the content happened to appear and you would have one single user interface to interact with to watch it.

Nerds who also liked sports (a minority to be sure, but not non-existent) especially wanted this. No more worrying about being in front of the TV when the game is on. Just fire up your computer sometime after it has started and there it is.

Netflix, of course, started the flood of streaming services for scripted and other pre-recorded programming. A few years after it was clear that Neflix was about to eat everyone else’s lunch, all of the major media networks shipped various kinds of streaming. But, what remained missing to a large degree was live sports. Or at least live sports that I was interested in.

My recent dive into the soccer rabbit hole has changed all of this for me. If you want to be able to watch the widest possible range of European football games, you have to be signed up to almost every streamer that exists:

  1. Peacock and Cable for Premiere league.
  2. fuboTV or YouTube TV for all the cable channels on your computer, plus some other sports packages, like the French Ligue 1 and so on.
  3. ESPN+ for La Liga, various side bits of English football (the various Cup competitions, some second tier league football), lots of other stuff (including the USL Championship, which is the second level U.S.league in which the local Pittsburgh team plays).
  4. Paramount+ for Serie A, Women’s football, Champions League, Europa League, and some other stuff.
  5. FOX for the American angle on various International competitions.
  6. AppleTV+ for Messi in America … and the rest of MSL.

There are probably a few more I missed.

These services have various delivery systems that run on your phone, or your iPad, or you web browser, or in your Apple TV/Smart TV thingy/Whatever. They are all pretty bad, and mostly don’t come close to the dreams of the “giant Tivo in the sky” ideal.

All of the various interfaces have weak and tedious facilities for navigating to the game you want to watch, especially if you are trying to watch the game after it has started but before it has finished. Most (particularly Paramount+ and Peacock, where most of the soccer is) attempt to simulate everything bad about broadcast TV since they will only allow you to play a game live or later play a “replay” of the game several hours after the fact. Apparently serving a video stream to you “in real time” is somehow different than serving one that is delayed a bit. I don’t begin to understand the complications here, but I do know that YouTube and Twitch can both do this with video game streamers so … to coin a phrase … why don’t they just do it?

ESPN+ is so incoherent that I can’t remember if it has this problem as well (I think it does not), because most of the time I can’t navigate to the game I wanted to watch under the sea of all the other sports and all the ESPN shows being listed in the browser interface all the time with no way to organize it with any finer granularity. I can usually only get there from the ESPN web site, where you’ll of course see the score while navigating to the game. Good job.

Apple TV+ has the distinction of shipping with a UI that shows you every score in every game whether you wanted to know them or not. Which is another great thing to happen to you when you are a bit late to the start time.

Finally, after watching all the other soccer coverage for a year the stuff on FOX is just really awful. I wish they could just get the British crew from NBC to do it. Dare to dream.

From the standpoint of a sports fan all of these services suffer from the fact that the navigation interfaces are all built to find shows and the sports content is organized the same way instead of being organized according to the structure of the leagues and competitions that the games belong to. What you want is something like this page from ESPN that has every game that is being played on any given day … and then just add links to where the game is on “TV”. Sadly no one has any of this.

The one small exception to many of my complaints is, of all things, YouTube TV. I imagine FuboTV would be similar, but I have not tried their service. While the general navigation interface at YouTube TV is pretty much just as poor as the rest the fact that you can easily mark various classes of shows and events as things to “record” in your “library” at least makes it easy to find recent games that you were interested in watching. Also, the user model here is in fact “a Tivo run by a web server.” So for things that are available on the service the system comes very close to the “giant Tivo in the Sky” thing that we all dreamed about back in the day. It’s probably as close as one can expect to manage, given the realities of media rights, software engineering, and so on.

The main downside is that it is very expensive. And who knows what data they are collecting on you. And the Apple TV app for YouTube TV, while thankfully not the same as the awful YouTube app, is still not the best. Still, I’d pay all the money and more if the rest of the streaming services just appeared as channels in the YouTube TV service so I’d be able to “record” the sports stuff that’s there instead of waiting for the replays to appear a few hours after the game ends. I would also much rather everyone just standardized on the YouTube playback interface, even though it’s far from perfect, because it’s closer to good than any of the others. At least scrubbing forward and backward in time usually works in YouTube whereas I’m pretty sure there are circumstances under which pausing the video doesn’t even work in Paramount’s god-forsaken app.

I find myself without any real conclusion about all of this except to say that we appear to have come full circle in the sports on TV business. Before you could only really be happy if you spent all the money for everything whether you needed it or not. Internet TV is now in exactly the same spot, except you have to use 15 different navigation and video interfaces, none of which do the right thing rather than only a single example of such a thing. As usual the nerds dreamed for something and when it was actually built it turned out kind of all wrong.

Maybe in another 10 years everything will just be a channel in the YouTube TV service of the future. On the other hand the number of was that could go wrong is truly mind boggling.