by Stefania Gancitano
Oct 28, 2019

Smart TV: is the pain worth the gain?

Smart TV has become the standard for home entertainment. According to Strategy Analytics, worldwide sales of Smart TVs reached 157 million units in 2018, making up 67% of all TVs sold during the year.
What’s the hype about?

Smart TVs offer high-quality displays, on-demand content from various apps, the ability to connect to your phone or tablet, and easy access to streaming services. Some TVs have become smart hubs, giving you control over smart bulbs and thermostats that you can even command with your voice.

Not to mention the increasingly affordable price-point.

Why should you care?

If you have a streaming service, you can’t afford not to care.

Research from Ovum states that 60% of consumers watch premium content such as movies, drama series, and documentaries via their Smart TV, or smart device connected to their TV. When it comes to streaming, it turns out that size does matter.

To put this into context, statistics from BBC iPlayer’s Performance Report show that 59% of users choose to stream its content on TV platforms. Hulu in the US reports that 78% of all viewing takes place in the living room on connected TVs. Still not convinced? Netflix, the mother of all streaming services, reports that 70% of its streams end up on connected TVs. People who pay a premium, expect a premium experience.

What’s in it for me?

The benefits don’t just lie with consumers who want to watch Game of Thrones on a big screen. Connected TVs are projected to be the biggest device segment for online AVoD revenue (outside of YouTube, Facebook and China) by 2024. As many premium OTT platforms are turning to hybrid SVoD and AVoD monetization models, and the technology for ad replacement improves, there is a profit to be made.

So hopefully I have you on side, and you agree that it’s smart to have your streaming service on Smart TV. BUT, there’s a catch.

Smart TV Development is Challenging

You may have the best software engineering team in all existence, and you may have a pretty cool mobile and browser app for your streaming service, but Smart TV apps are cut from a different cloth.

First of all, the market is very fragmented. There are a tonne of TV brands, each with their own purpose-built OS and platform-specific SDKs. For example:

  • tvOS (Apple)
  • Android TV (Sony & Phillips)
  • Tizen (Samsung)
  • WebOS (LG)
  • Roku (US only)

TV manufacturers are constantly releasing new models to keep up with the latest trends, and so the industry moves at lightning speed. Meanwhile at home, replacement cycles range from 7-10 years; so you now have to support shiny new models, but also the older ones still sitting in your customers living room.
Older models provide fewer capabilities and additional limitations when it comes to support for technologies that a developer might take for granted, what streaming formats are supported, and which type of encryption (DRM) it can be combined with. Not to mention ad support, performance issues, platform specific quirks, and so on. Are your ads that use the standard VAST container supported in combination with Smooth streams encrypted with PlayReady DRM? Who knows! You need to figure these things out on your own.
Add to this the lack of (comprehensible) documentation and this can quickly turn into a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, result in erroneous or unexpected outcomes.

So you have a pretty slick looking mobile app, which you credit to your awesome designer. You want your Smart TV app to have a similar look and feel. The hard work is done, right? Well actually, it’s not as simple as copy and paste.

In general, Smart TV has more real estate to play around with than a mobile screen. You have to consider the 10ft rule; people at home are sitting approximately 10 feet away from their TV, usually in a horizontal position. You also need to account for angular visibility, and the fact that some screens are curved. The design must look good in movie mode, but also in eco mode.

In terms of user experience, most platforms have a specific set of UX recommendations you need to follow. There’s different guidelines, requirements and checklists for Samsung Tizen, LG WebOS, Apple TV and Android TV, and the certification process can be very tedious. Again, if you’re looking for documentation, there’s not a whole lot out there, and in-person support is hard to come by.
Then we get to navigation… Actually, navigation deserves its own heading.

On browser and on mobile, navigation is simple enough. You click, and you tap. When it comes to TV, each model has a physical remote you need to programme. Some remotes have just four directional keys, others have loads of buttons that no one ever uses, and yet which must have a function. Then you have creative remote controls, such as Apple’s touchpad and LG’s Magic Remote pointer. Remotes can dictate which features you can implement.

On Smart TV, to interact with the elements on the screen you have to move the focus (navigate to) the element and press a selection button (OK button, Enter button etc.) when the element is focused. There should be only one focused element on the screen. You have to implement the logic for this type of navigation yourself, as sadly there is no default implementation. There is also always a risk of introducing bugs such as having more than one focused element on the screen or losing focus completely.

The complexity of navigation on Smart TV is often underestimated. Our engineering team have developed a pretty cool solution for it which can be used for React components. We couldn’t keep them just for ourselves, so we have open sourced the code which you can find on Github.

Once you have what seems like a functional app, as with any development process, you need to test it before releasing it to consumers.

During development, your app might work well on a simulator, but you MUST test it on each individual TV set. If you’re working in Chrome for example, you probably have a much more powerful CPU and GPU working on all frontend elements. Your transitions might be super smooth on browser but may lag terribly on TV and provide an unforgiving user experience.

One of the biggest challenges for QA Engineers is that older models don’t have the same processing capabilities as the newer models. You need to make sure all devices perform as expected and the service is not degrading on the older device. Some issues can be model specific, so you need to test on all of them. We had to build a testing lounge to contain all our TV models.

Time to get Smart?

Smart TVs are a strategic platform for OTT service providers to invest in for the future, but development doesn’t come without its challenges. In terms of set up, you can allocate some resources in your development team or hire a new team, and perhaps make use of a consultant versed in the art of Smart TV development.

There are also companies that have the knowledge and experience building Smart TV apps, and can deploy a product in a significantly shorter timeframe.

If you want your streaming service on Smart TV and you’re not sure where to start, feel free to get in touch.
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