Twenty First Century TV

On October 3, 2007, in Culture, by psu

I finally couldn’t take watching HD sports over the air, so I dropped some cash on the new Tivo HD. If you weren’t paying attention, this is the $300 box that does most of what the previously $800 and now $600 Tivo Series 3 does. You can get dual HD tuning, a disk big enough for all the programming I’ll ever need, and that same stylish and streamlined Tivo interface.

Of course, there is only one problem with this vision of Nirvana. You have to get the cable company to your house to set up the CableCard. And the cable companies hate CableCard.

CableCard, you may recall, is a standard that essentially puts the security and tuning hardware from one of those old cable boxes into a little card about the size of a PCMCIA expansion card for a laptop. The cable companies were mandated to allow the use of these cards in third party hardware so that you as a consumer are not locked in to their cable box hardware, at least in theory. In practice, the cable companies hate these things. They would like to be providing the complete cable TV experience end to end. And in theory I am sympathetic to this cause. Controlling the whole user experience can be a good thing if you are competent enough to be able to build a good user experience in the first place. Unfortunately, the cable companies are not so competent. Therefore it falls to companies like Tivo to make TV usable again.

So we called a couple of weeks ago after one-clicking the box on Amazon. Right on time, well, right within the alloted four hour window, the guy shows up. Right away things go bad. His work order is for the wrong cable package, the wrong wiring (we needed one more wire), and for the Piece of Shit Comcast DVR instead of two CableCards. This is because it is too expensive for the cable companies to either

1. Hire phone people who can take your order and transcribe it correctly.

2. Hire Web people to build a web site that can in fact tell you what packages are available in your area and allow you to order those packages online so some barely literate minimum wage lackey can’t fuck up the order.

Anyway. The cable guy goes back out to his van to find the cards. He comes back in and starts going on and on about how the CableCard hardware never works right and how he’s barely ever done any installs and who knows how it really works. I can’t tell if this is just an act to make me break down and use the Piece of Shit Comcast DVR or if he is truly intimidated by this hardware.

The actual install of the cards went fairly well, except that the home office had to completely rewrite the order and our account status to be able to activate the cards. There was a lot of reading of numbers over the phone and some waiting on our end while the phone operator also opined about how complicated CableCard is and how she didn’t know how it is supposed to work. It’s like they don’t want you using it.

Once activated, I didn’t realize that I could test all the channels coming over the wire without redoing the Tivo setup, which takes about half an hour. The result was that while we are receiving the HD channels fine (woohoo! go Patriot…er, go Steelers!), I didn’t notice until after the installer left that we had been given the wrong cable programming package, so the kid channels that are nearly the entire and only reason to have the Tivo in the first place simply don’t exist according to our tuner. Hopefully one more call to Comcast will fix this, assuming they can understand our moon language instructions and write them down correctly.

Think about this for a second. After a long phone call and an hour with the guy in my house, I still ended up with the wrong set of channels. This, combined with the fact that the Tivo Guide data is always buggy and the fact that no one seems to be able to build a web site that can confidently and correctly tell me what is on TV at any given time at my house is, to me, an obvious and deep reason why the broadcast TV industry just doesn’t get it.

They think that the data model for what is on TV is made up of a four values: title, location, time, and channel. Really, all any end user cares about is the name of the show. Why should I care that The Bionic Woman meets Paris Hilton in the Simple Life comes on at 10pm on channel 437 in Pittsburgh but at 8pm on channel 577 in San Jose? Why should anyone need to keep track of this? You should just be able to talk to some TV oracle, type in the name of the show, and have it appear on your television at some point in the future.

Instead, you have to fight a byzantine maze of local channels, premium packages and special broadcast deals with the various sports leagues only to end up in a situation where the Red Sox game starts at 6:40, but the Tivo will only start recording at 5:30 because some nitwit typed in the data wrong a week ago and now they can’t fix it.

Which is all to say, I’m happy with my Tivo. I think it’s probably the best user experience that you can have with modern television. But at some fundamental level it’s still completely wrong and stupid. This is a sad sad reflection of how badly the TV and consumer electronics companies have screwed the pooch.


5 Responses to “Twenty First Century TV”

  1. Julie says:

    Welcome to my world – I got the Series3 Tivo last Christmas and to this day I am still having problems with Comcast. In fact, over the last few weeks I’ve been blogging about how much I want to destroy them. The latest chapter in my saga is that I suddenly stopped receiving 3 channels (this is in addition to the 2 random Encore channels that just stopped showing up after I moved), and it has taken at least 4 appointments with Comcast to get this settled (that’s including 2 no shows from their techs) (…and it still isn’t settled). Also, every tech that comes to my house always asks where my 2 TV’s are – apparently they just see on their work order that I have 2 cable cards and assume they are in separate TV’s. Then when they get to the livingroom, they all have that same look of shock on their face and say, “You got Tivo?!” I’ve also had your same experience with the tech trying to convince me that I might as well go with the (highly inferior) Comcast DVR. If you have a couple of hours on your hands, check out this 128 page thread about Comcast, Tivo, and CableCARDS over at the Tivo forums:

    Good luck and fight the power! Tivo kicks ass whenever it plays nicely with the cable company.

  2. Chris says:

    I think above all other things in this post, which are also valid, the thing that angers me the most about TV today is that it makes me feel like a complete idiot. I can’t just ‘watch tv’, I can’t just buy a ‘tv’ anymore. There’s HDTV, 720i 720p 1080i 1080p 16:9 4:3 stretch fit… what the F* is this crap? HDMI DVI compontent vga, huh? isn’t this just a cable to get tv peoples onto my brightly colored square boxey thingy? cable-card cable-box digital analog local premium, what the hell?? if you do the calculations there are approximately 12,768 ways this could all f-up and leave me without being able to watch ‘bionic woman’ or ‘what not to wear’ or whatever…

    holy cow batman, how is any supposed to just get a TV to replace their current TV anymore? Nevermind watching tv shows I want, when I want with reliability that borders on idiot-proof. The tv/entertainment-equipment industry needs to keep in mind that they are being far more complicated than even the Internet business… I mean, hell I can do bgp, isis, firewalls, encryption, http, unix, blah blah blah. I can’t get a goddamned tv into my home that doesn’t look like and act like a freakin goddamned TV anymore!! holy hell, seriously…

    argh!!! I think I just burst a blood vessel!

  3. Alex says:

    Hey all, I know there are techie and practical reasons to choose cable over Directv, but so far my Directv experience has been exceptional. I don’t DVR (sorry), but they provide tons of great channels, and pop in random programming like the US open when I least expect it. They even let me order a rugby channel for a month for $15 during world cup, then cancel whenever I want. All without a new contract, bigger package, etc. Their website is still imperfect, but their phone service has been great so far. Finally a big company that treats their customers well.

  4. Tom Moertel says:

    My solution to the TV-experience problem has three parts. First, I get the minimal cable package available. It costs about $9 per month, and the cable company doesn’t want you to know it’s there. With it, I get the local TV stations and the big networks, but no ESPN, CNN, or Potato Pancake Channel. Second, I use Tivo (Series 2) to decouple the TV shows from their fixed network schedule, to extract the most value from the few channels I get, and to make TV a generally pleasant experience. Third, I subscribe to Netflix to get movies and the handful of TV shows that I care about but don’t get via TV (e.g., The Sopranos).

    The total monthly cost for my solution is less than the cable company’s “Standard” analog plan and delivers a much better experience. The best part, however, is the satisfaction of not playing the cable company’s game.


  5. psu says:

    I’d have stuck with DirecTV except for two issues

    1. To get HD out of them, I have to pay a ludicrous amount of money for new hardware even though I am a long time customer (more than 10 years)… whereas they will give new customers this hardware for free. It’s also unclear how I get local HD channels.

    2. Their HD DVR is not a Tivo.