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Is there a way back for DirecTV Now?

DirectTV Now home screen on Apple TV

DirecTV Now’s launch has been marked by poor quality and frequent errors, customer complaints, and a barrage of negative press. Is there a way back for service?

Launch euphoria becomes implementation nightmare

The launch of DirecTV Now in November of 2016 created a lot of excitement. It’s aggressive entry offer price of $35 a month for a hundred channels caught a lot of people off guard. And because people that joined at that price could keep it, even when the price went up to $60 after the offer period, a lot of people seem to have decided to jump on-board.

This appears to have been a mistake. The underlying technology, which came to AT&T with the acquisition of QuickPlay last year, clearly cannot cope with the demand the initial offer is generating. AT&T’s message boards have been inundated with complaints, and news outlets are reporting how “DirecTV Now appears to be a complete mess.” Worse, AT&T is refusing to give refunds for poor service.

Personal experience has been poor

My experience with the service has been, to say the least, inconsistent. At its best, DirecTV Now has performed at or above the level I have come to expect from Pay TV. Quick channel changes and a good quality picture are complimented by an easy to use interface and a very attractive price point.

DirecTV Now sometimes just hangs

DirecTV Now gets stuck and can’t start the video

Unfortunately, the service has been totally unable to sustain this throughout the day and across devices. While watching the College Football Playoff Championship between Alabama and Clemson on an Amazon Fire TV stick, the picture was jerky and the audio 2 seconds behind the action. Sling TV on the same device delivered in-sync audio and excellent picture quality.

I frequently encounter errors while trying to watch on-demand programs. And sometimes the video or channel I request just fails to start (without any apparent error.) In short, this service is not ready for primetime.

HBO Nordic stared into the abyss

The folks responsible for DirecTV Now are facing a PR nightmare from which they might not see an escape. However, other media companies have been there, and lived to tell the tale.

When HBO and Netflix squared off in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland back in October 2012, it’s fair to say HBO made a complete mess of it. The company did just about everything wrong in the first release of HBO Nordic. Customer terms were unfriendly, with no free month’s trial and a 12-month commitment. Those that were brave enough to pay the upfront fees were greeted with poor streaming video quality, a lack of device apps through which to access the service, weak and unfriendly interfaces, and poor technical support.

Netflix, on the other hand, launched with a free month trial and just one month commitment. The technical implementation was flawless with plenty of clients and great streaming quality.

After twelve months, though both Netflix and HBO Nordic charged the same monthly subscription fee (DKK79, $14), Netflix had 17% household penetration while HBO Nordic had just 2%.

HBO Nordic’s road to recovery

The easy part of the fix for HBO Nordic was to change those unfriendly customer terms to mirror Netflix. It took much longer for the company to admit the technical implementation had to go. Finally, HBO Nordic turned to Clearleap (now a part of IBM Cloud Video) to replace the backend infrastructure and the apps running on connected devices. This was no easy task, according to Clearleap’s CEO at the time, Braxton Jarratt.

“We bring all the content in and normalize it. We completely rebuilt the apps, all the way from the sign-up experience to the playback on the devices. You have to have a user experience equal to the content; you have to have both.”

The rebuild and relaunch of the service worked. By the second quarter of 2015, HBO Nordic had improved penetration from 2% to 14%.

What should DirecTV Now do?

It might not feel like it to DirecTV Now employees, but the company is in a better position than HBO Nordic was back in 2014. DirecTV Now’s pricing is in the right ballpark, it has good device coverage, and the app interfaces are well designed. The content mix also appears to be compelling to quite a lot of people.

What’s lacking is the backend services. The company needs to admit QuickPlay isn’t getting the job done, and get to a platform that has proven it can scale and deliver a consistent video experience. And it needs to start issuing refunds to unhappy customers.

The problem for DirecTV Now is that it doesn’t have as much time to change as HBO Nordic did. There is not a direct substitute for shows like Game of Thrones. Great exclusive content like that allowed HBO Nordic a second chance to win back customers. With solid equivalent services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue in market, and more coming from Hulu and YouTube, the folks at DirecTV Now have no time to hesitate at all!

Why it matters

DirecTV Now is having widespread technical issues.

These problems have been picked up by the press and have become a PR nightmare.

HBO Nordic was in the same position 4 years ago, and was able to recover from.

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