Twenty First Century TV

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.