When I drove past a billboard earlier this week that promised me a new universe of streaming media, I nearly pulled over to the side of the road so that I could try it. Right. Now. Was this the day I’d been waiting for? The day when I’d finally experience the joy of unlimited TV, packaged in a decent online interface?
This reaction won’t make a lot of sense to my American friends, who live in a competitive paradise of free and low-cost options for on-demand TV and movies. Up here, north of the 49th parallel, we still mostly have to carve our TV shows frame-by-fame onto hunks of ice, which we then push into the ocean until they’re floating fast enough to approximate a really cold flipbook version of Grey’s Anatomy.
You see, the hassle of sorting out IP rights for the handful of people who live up here just doesn’t make the effort worthwhile. So while we finally have Netflix and iTunes, they both offer fewer titles than their American counterparts. And the joys of Hulu, Amazon streaming and US broadcaster apps (like NBC’s iPad app) aren’t available at all, unless you use a proxy server that convinces the interwebs that you’re actually in America.
Thus my excitement about shomi: a made-in-Canada streaming service that I’d hope would replace my homebrewed version of on-demand TV. Something about the all-lowercase brand name and the ultra-minimalist billboard just gave me the sense that somewhere in the shomi HQ lurked a techno-hipster with dreams of user experience greatness.
And user experience has long been the primary driver behind my approach to media consumption on this side of the border. Thanks to Plex, the application we use to organize, view and stream our media files on our awesome home media server, we have a media system that addresses virtually everything that drives me crazy about the user experience offered by a PVR.
You mean that just because I taped in upstairs, I can’t watch it downstairs? (Yes, I know, there are devices that can now solve this problem….but Plex solved it for me five years ago!) You mean that just because I didn’t remember to tape it, I can’t watch it? You mean that even if I don’t know which Canadian network carries the show my American friends are talking about it, I can still watch it? You mean that anytime I want to watch something, I have to look at your butt-ugly interface, which may or may not offer me a teaser of the episode, doesn’t play the show’s theme music while I’m scanning for the latest episode (gosh, I do love that about Plex) and can’t hold every single episode of every TV show I’ve ever watched, just in case the world ends and I need to trade TV shows for food?
These are the user experience problems our home media server solves. But that solution comes at a price: while I do love my Plex-based home media setup, I’m feeling increasingly worn down by the maintenance. If I’m not working around the prolonged outage on our favorite torrenting service, I’m troubleshooting the disappearance of subtitles from Borgen; if I’m not fixing the mysterious sound problems on the computer hooked up to our bedroom TV, I’m re-installing our proxy software so I can watch the latest season of Amazon’s Alpha House. No wonder we’re only one episode into the latest season of Homeland: for the past couple of months, I’ve spent an hour on video troubleshooting for every hour I spend actually watching TV.
Along with the maintenance burden, our home media server poses another problem: guilt. I know Shonda Rhimes and Joss Whedon are probably doing OK, but my religious torrenting of all their shows doesn’t count for much when they’re trying to convince a broadcast exec to greenlight their plan for a new program in which an army of time-traveling African-American lady clones use their scientific know-how and seductive looks to take down an interplanetary conspiracy. We do our part to keep Shonda and Joss in business by paying for a premium cable package, even though we watch virtually all our TV shows on our DIY server; I feel better about choosing my own media consumption interface when I know we’re paying for almost all of that content through our cable bill. But I’m not sure Shonda and Joss would agree.
Shomi suggested it might solve my guilt and maintenance issues without sacrificing user experience. After all, it offers streaming, on-demand content, available via web, mobile device or even (getting crazy here) our cable box. And my first browse through the interface looked promising: I like the ability to tell shomi what kinds of programs I enjoy, the option to customize for different family members, the snappy search functionality and the jitter-free streaming. And I love the fact that their terms of service link is labeled “The Lawyers Made Us Do It”.
There’s only one tiny problem: it turns out user experience isn’t just about the interface. It’s also about the content. And here, as with so many other Canadian services, shomi falls way short. No Grey’s Anatomy. No Good Wife. No How to Get Away with Murder. No Nashville, no Flash, no Mindy Project, no Brooklyn Nine-Nine, no Mythbusters. Yes, it’s got Scandal, The Americans, Modern Family and Homeland — but only older seasons, not the current one. And we haven’t even gotten to our weird niche commitments: Sherlock, Borgen, Covert Affairs or Episodes.
I don’t blame shomi for these shortcomings: they’re no more limited than any other Canadian viewing option, and I suspect some of the shows on our must list aren’t even broadcast in Canada. But that’s the joy of living in the Internet era: if you’re willing to put up with a little bit of maintenance, and a little bit of guilt, your media habits no longer have to be limited by your national borders. In a world in which the good good media goodness of American media is just a proxy server away, a successful media service needs to be more than just a pretty interface.