Why the Cable Company Is Selling TVs

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

Walmart is starting to sell television sets with the software guts of Comcast, the cable TV provider and the owner of the Universal movie studio and TV networks including NBC.

These Comcast TVs may never be best sellers. But they’re interesting because of what they represent: the corporate land grab to become the starting point for all things streaming in Americans’ homes.

Comcast, Amazon, Roku and many other companies imagine that we might watch “Monday Night Football,” gawk at the latest Netflix costume drama and sit through a YouTube science video all through one of their TV sets or gadgets.

Selling the equipment isn’t the goal but a means to an end. Their objective is to make money from selling ads or by pointing people to watch “Halloween” on a streaming service that pays for the promotion. Comcast wants to use its TV sets to pitch its Peacock streaming service.

It’s one of the highest-stakes battles in corporate America right now. There’s power and money to be made for the companies that can convince us to use their hardware as the starting spot for our virtual leisure time.

There’s nothing necessarily odd or wrong with this. The fight to be Americans’ go-to spot for all entertainment has been raging for decades in media and technology.

Starting in the 1990s, Bill Gates wanted people to use Microsoft technology to watch TV programs as well as power their personal computers. Beginning in the 20th century, video boxes from Comcast or other cable providers were the gateway to TV and other home entertainment. Comcast in the 21st century has a similar idea. It’s old TV in a new disguise.

I don’t blame you if you just want to watch “Squid Game” on Netflix and not think too hard about dudes in suits trying to win the behind-the-scenes war for your TV screen. But it might be worth considering what we gain and lose from this streaming fracas.

Amazon Fire TV nudges people to buy online movies from Amazon and has prominent promotions from other streaming apps that pay Amazon to get right in front of your eyeballs. At times, Roku streaming devices haven’t included some entertainment apps including YouTube TV and HBO Max because of financial spats between the companies.

Entertainment programmers like Netflix and Disney want to get bigger themselves so they have more power than the distributors like Amazon, Roku and Comcast.

This new streaming world is glorious (so much to watch!), but more annoying than it should be because there’s so much money at stake and companies want to win control. And that highlights an oddity of the internet age: It has both neutered old world gatekeepers like conventional cable TV providers, big box stores and newspapers, and created powerful new ones.

Amazon gave us choices of products that we never had in physical stores, but the company also has enormous influence over which products get noticed. Almost anyone can create a smartphone app, but Apple, Google and other app store owners largely control which ones we can download and on what terms. Anyone can post their dance videos or ideas online, but the Facebook or TikTok computer systems determine how many people see them.

This is what drives me crazy about the new digital worlds. We have so much choice at our fingertips, but in reality there are still power brokers that have enormous influence to steer what we see, do or buy.

Tip of the Week

Oooh, you’re in for a treat. Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, brings us a few tech tricks to save us some precious time and brain power:

1) “Siri, add a meeting to my calendar.” Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa are the butt of many jokes because they often misunderstand what we say. But after a decade of using Siri on iPhones, I’ve found that it’s the best way to add new events to my digital calendar. Saying, “Hey Siri, add doctor appointment to calendar on Thursday at 3 p.m.” takes only a few seconds.

2) Password managers: Using complex, unique passwords for our online accounts is an absolute must, and I don’t know how I’d live without a password manager that automatically generates them for me and stores them in a secured vault protected by a master password. My favorite is 1Password. I also use the app to save credit card numbers to speed through online shopping.

3) Shopping alerts: I hate buying expensive items at full price, but who has the time to repeatedly check a retailer’s website for the best prices? I rely on price tracking tools like Camel Camel Camel to send me email alerts when prices drop for products I’m watching on Amazon. For used items, I use the Craigslist app to set up email alerts to tell me immediately when an item that I’m searching for has been listed by a seller. (Currently, I’m looking for an outdoor dining table.)

4) Scheduled emails: Email is probably the most difficult tech in my life. I am bombarded by messages. With scheduled emails, I get back a little control by writing messages when it’s convenient for me and having them delivered at a time that I choose. Gmail’s email scheduling tool has been a godsend.

  • Another union drive at an Amazon warehouse: Hourly workers on Staten Island — some of whom complained about mistreatment by Amazon — said that they plan to try to form a union, my colleagues Karen Weise and Coral Murphy Marcos report. Labor unions have tried and failed before to organize hourly workers at Amazon, and the company is eager to keep them out.

  • Companies would like you to buy a new smartphone as often as possible. The marketing pitch is that you can buy a new phone for just the price of a daily cup of coffee. Brian X. Chen looks at the true cost of a new phone.

  • TikTok trends have compelled Americans to buy cooking pans, leggings and vacuum cleaners. But this pales in comparison to the online home shopping phenomenon in China. This week, one online star sold $1.9 billion in merchandise in a single day from his live broadcast on the Chinese e-commerce site Taobao, according to Bloomberg News.

In regular TikTok videos, Jonathan Graziano plays a game with his 13-year-old pug named Noodle: Is it a “bones” day for Noodle (get out of bed) or a “no bones” day (forget it)? “Think of Noodle as a four-legged mood ring,” writes my colleague Jesus Jiménez.

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