Cable TV Thinks Inside the Box
When I first signed up for cable TV, ridding myself of a cable box required nothing more than phone call and a Metro ride out to District Cablevision's offices in Brookland to return that hardware.
That was a simpler time. Today, things would be a little more complicated -- by which I mean "difficult to impossible." Doing without a cable box's cost, size and ugly interface while subscribing to a comparable programming bundle would require purchasing one of the handful of TVs or digital video recorders with CableCard slots, then waiting for a cable rep to show up and perform the complicated technical task of ... popping the card into a slot.
(Also, that bundle would cost at least twice as much as it did back then.)
(Cable operators will complain about my characterization of a CableCard install, citing the complexity of their systems, billing plans and networks. My response: Maybe if you simplified those things, you could drive down your operating costs. Isn't that kind of your job?)
Anyway, back to the post. Today's column takes a look at the cable industry's transition from analog to digital networks -- many of you have e-mailed me about Comcast, Cox and RCN's moving channels from analog to digital -- and what that industry's failure to set and support standards has cost customers and itself.
Lest you think I'm beating up on cable, consider that satellite broadcasters haven't even made a serious attempt to standardize reception technology. And fiber-optic services like Verizon's Fios have opted out of cable's "tru2way" specification, its latest attempt in this area and one that might actually succeed in the market where others have failed.
This isn't just about freeing TV viewers from the tyranny of another few dollars on the cable bill, another box under the TV and another remote on the coffee table. For one thing, Comcast provides free digital-cable receivers -- one full-featured box and two simpler adapters, or three adapters -- to every household that moved from analog to digital cable. (If you're among them and haven't gotten that offer, please let me know.)
For another thing, most cable subscribers already pay for a digital package. Comcast's general manager of video, Derek Harrar, said Wednesday that about 75 percent of its 24 million subscribers nationwide get digital service today. Cox spokesman David Grabert e-mailed Thursday that 60 percent of its 5 million-plus subscribers pay for digital cable; in its Northern Virginia market, the figure is about 80 percent.
No, the the costs of a closed market for cable-reception hardware extend further than customers' bills and living rooms. Viewers pay more than they might in a competitive industry and don't get to vote with their wallets for or against particular vendors. Cable operators can draw upon only a shallow pool of brainpower when picking new boxes for their customers. Think of what it was like to procure a phone in the Ma Bell days -- or ask an older relative how that was -- and you should get a sense of how broken the cable-box business is.
Anxious to rant about how you hate your own cable box? Want to explain how I've got this all wrong? The comments are all yours. You can also talk back in real time during my Web chat, from noon to 1-ish today here.
October 2, 2009; 10:19 AM ET
Categories: TV , Video
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