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Alexa TV voice control over-promises, under-delivers

Access usage and frequency of TV voice search

If you believe all the hype, Alexa is taking the world of television by storm. Pay TV operators are integrating with it, and the company is actively targeting cable with the functionality. But don’t throw away that remote. You’ll still be needing it, a lot!

Pay TV tries Alexa for control

Two big pay TV operators have already embraced Alexa. BT in the UK has just announced planned to allow Alexa-enabled devices to control its YouView television service. This could bring voice control to 2.4 million subscribers.

Last month, Dish Network introduced Alexa control of its Hopper and Wally set-top boxes. The integration requires an update of the software running on the device, and for the user to download the Hopper skill in the Alexa app on a mobile device.

This is part of a broader strategy by Amazon. The company announced a new set of tools for pay TV operators to integrate their service with Alexa. The operator must update its Internet-connected set-top box with a new version of the guide software that includes Alexa functionality. Once updated, a customer will be able to control the TV experience from any Alexa-enabled device. Amazon says Alexa integration will allow operator customers to change channel, pause and resume viewing, and search for shows and movies all using only voice commands.

Consumers are interested in TV voice control

access and use of TV voice searchA small but growing group of consumers are very interested in using their voice to control their television experience. TiVo asked consumers in the U.S. if they had access to TV voice search and if they used it. 19% said they had access to a TV device with voice search capabilities. Of those, 44% said they used it, the rest did not. 39% did not have access and didn’t want it. 20% didn’t have access and wanted it.

Those that use it, use it a lot. 84% use TV voice search once a week or more, and 30% use it more than daily. For comparison, standard on-screen text search is available to most pay TV subscribers through their operator’s set-top box. TiVo data says that about half use it, and 46% do not.

This data suggests consumers understand voice can save a lot of tedious remote key presses to accelerate the search process. But can it save a viewer from using a remote at all?

Alexa and Hopper: an exercise in frustration

The Alexa-Hopper integration illustrates perfectly why we are a long, long way from being able to put away our remotes. As an Echo owner and Dish customer, I have had a chance to test out the new voice control features.^

If you know what you want, Alexa and Hopper work well together to accelerate search. I checked for episodes of Big Bang Theory and Elementary and was quickly taken directly to the search results. However, once there Alexa wouldn’t let me record the show.

Tuning channels also worked well, provided I used exactly the right phrase. For example, “Alexa, tune to HGTV” worked, while “Alexa, tune to Home and Garden TV” didn’t. Asking Alexa to “pause” and “play” worked consistently well, although I found myself shouting to be heard above the TV.

Other things that I expected to work didn’t. For example, I couldn’t frame a question that Alexa would answer to help me find and watch the Warriors Cavaliers game on Thursday evening. After listening to “I’m not quite sure how to help you with that” a few times, I did what I bet most people will do. Picked up the remote, and ignored Alexa for the rest of the game.

Voice control will improve, won’t replace the remote

One thing is certain: voice control of TV will get better. Amazon continues to invest heavily in the technology, and competition from Google should help the technology keep progressing. The web search giant announced at IO2017 that it is bringing Google assistant services to Android TV.

However, it could be a long time before we put away that remote. Cory O’Connor, Product Manager, Android TV platform at Google, pointed out at ETCA 2017 that a voice system has to win the trust of a user. Without that, consumers simply won’t use it. Clearly Alexa and Hopper haven’t won mine.

Why it matters

Amazon is making a big play toward pay TV operators to get them to embrace Alexa voice control of their services.

In my test Alexa’s control of the Dish Hopper, I found the functionality to be inconsistent and frustrating.

Until TV voice control systems win the users trust, people will continue to use their TV remotes.


^I purchased my Echo at retail, and pay $98/month for a Dish subscription with a Hopper DVR.

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