Limited App-Peel

“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on.” Bruce Springsteen sang that lyric back in 1992. These days, the average cable or satellite subscriber has hundreds of channels to choose from, yet the TV landscape can sometimes seem just as bleak. Depending on your perspective, either there’s still nothing decent on the air to watch, or there are so many interesting programs that you find it impossible to keep up with them all. In either case, an iOS and Android app called Peel wants to help you out by suggesting TV shows that you might want to watch. It’s even free! But is it actually useful? To find out, I decided to give the app a try.

In concept, Peel tries to do for TV programming what Pandora does for music. (Or, more to the point, what TiVo already does for TV programming, but in a mobile app that doesn’t require you to subscribe to TiVo.) That is, it tries to emulate the recommendation functions of those services. Peel will not record or play content on its own.

The Peel app can be downloaded for free from either the Apple App Store or the Android Market. I installed it on my Android phone. To set up the service, you start by entering your ZIP code and your TV service, then answering some personalization questions about the type of shows you like to watch.

First, you’re presented with a list of genres that you’re supposed to rank in order of preference: First Run, Comedy, Drama, Kids, Action & Adventure, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, News, Animation, Biography, Business, Documentary, Entertainment, Foreign, Game Show, Holiday, Lifestyle, Music & Dance, Non-Fiction, Reality, Soap, Special, Talk, Thriller, Variety, War, Western, Event and Other.

You’re given the ability to uncheck any of these that don’t interest you. Some of these categories are generically named and are not defined. I assume that “First Run” means new episodes, as opposed to repeats? Does “Entertainment” refer to shows like ‘Access Hollywood’ and ‘Extra!’, or is that just a generic description for things that are allegedly entertaining? I’m not sure about that. “Lifestyle” I’m guessing means things like decorating shows or Martha Stewart… maybe?

Next, you’re supposed to customize sports: Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Soccer, News & Talk or Other. I have no interest in sports, so I just unchecked everything on this page.

You can enter your age and gender to help refine the suggestions, or you can opt out of providing that info.

With all that done, the app will pull up the current time to tell you what’s on the air right now that you might want to watch. I tried this at 9 PM on a Tuesday, and got the response: “No Top Picks Available.” Huh. That doesn’t seem too helpful so far.

Using the controls at the bottom of the screen, you can toggle between Top Picks, TV Shows, Movies, Sports, Search or Settings. Specifying TV, Movies or Sports still left me with no suggestions. To be fair, my DVR wasn’t actually recording anything at that particular moment. Still, given the broad and generic info I’d programmed into Peel at this point, I would hope that it would recommend something. Scrolling forward to the 10 PM hour didn’t make a difference.

Since I had ‘Justified’ scheduled to record at 10 PM, I decided to enter that into the Search option. Once I found it, I tapped on the screen and got the message: “Favorite Program. Tap the star on all your favorite programs. Over time, as Peel learns what you like, it suggests more personalized Top Picks.” OK, at least now it seems like we’re getting somewhere. I tapped the star on ‘Justified’ to identify it as a favorite. Strangely, this didn’t seem to do much. When I returned to the 10 PM time listing, I still had no recommended Top Picks, not even the show I just labeled a favorite.

What I tried to do next was go through all of my DVR’s scheduled recordings for the week and search for them in Peel to flag them as favorites. I figured that would give the app a better base to build off. I found this to be unexpectedly frustrating. For one thing, the app will only search forward a few days. More importantly, the search function is missing a lot of shows on the air, even major shows like ‘Modern Family’. How could this app not pick up ‘Modern Family’?

When I tried to enter NBC’s Thursday comedy line-up, I found a listing for ‘Community’ (yay!), but not ’30 Rock’ or ‘The Office’. Not the first-run airings, anyway. But it does have listings for syndicated reruns of those shows on cable. What’s going on with this thing?

NBC’s drama series ‘Awake’ airs at 10 PM on Thursday. Peel shows it airing at 10 PM on Friday, when there’s actually an episode of ‘Dateline’ in that timeslot.

The season finale of ‘The Walking Dead’ is this Sunday at 9 PM. Peel only showed listings for the marathon of repeats that day through 8 PM, but at least I was able to flag the series as a favorite. Perhaps I was just searching too far forward? I also couldn’t find HBO’s ‘Luck’ or ‘Life’s Too Short’, both of which air that same night after 9 PM.

Eventually, I was able to flag at least a handful of shows that I watch. So I went back to the Tuesday listings to see if any recommendations were offered. This time, finally, ‘Justified’ was indeed recommended, along with a bunch of other shows that I don’t watch, such as ‘Tosh.0’ and reruns of ‘Friends’. Unfortunately, unlike Pandora, Peel does not offer a “Thumbs Down” or “Don’t Like” option to identify programs that you want to remove from your suggestions. I’ll be honest, I find the app’s recommendation system fairly useless without that option. How is it supposed to learn how to hone its recommendations if you can’t tell it that you dislike crap like ‘Tosh.0’?

Mysteriously, ‘Modern Family’, ’30 Rock’ and ‘The Office’ all show up as recommendations in their appropriate time slots now, even though I still can’t find them using the Search command.

What all this boils down to is that I found the Peel app needlessly clunky and frustrating to use. Perhaps its recommendations for the Top Picks that it thinks I would like will get better after I flag more shows, but at present, the suggested options seem pretty random and not particularly useful.

Peel also offers some options for connecting with Facebook or Twitter, or programming your phone to work as a remote control for your DVR. I didn’t test any of these functions because they don’t interest me.

Have any of our readers used Peel? Do you like it? Do you have any tips that can improve the experience? Please tell us in the Comments section below.

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