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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 2, 2009; 10:19 AM ET
Categories:  TV , Video  
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Comments

In our market, Comcast charges $5 for every digital converter box. With four TVs, that would be -- you do the math. We have heard nothing from Comcast directly about any change in that pricing. Although when I check their Web site today, it does mention two additional "digital transport adapters" at no charge. But the first digital box which according to your column should be free is still on our cable bill.

A particularly galling example of their "moving channels from analog to digital" is their migration of the local educational channel -- not the PBS channels, the one whereby students can take courses for college credit. It is still available (digitally, of course) over the air for free. Either way, one more hassle for the impoverished student.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | October 2, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Though Off the subject, this is comcast related. I have basic cable on my HDTV.
I get maybe 60 or so basic channels. Of that, Only 12 or so are in HD. Yet many more promo themselves as HD.Can anyone explain

Posted by: mikeveax | October 3, 2009 4:13 AM | Report abuse

Since last month's Comcast letter informing us that we'll need DTA's for our coax-only connected tv's to recieve channels that we used to watch, but had gone away during the transition, we now have comcast boxes on all tv's in the house! And these DTA's are slow responding.
My biggest complaint with Comcast is that I have to pay a ever increasing cable-tv (and internet)rate/bill for 100's of channels we have no interest in.
The lack of competition in the cable and ISP industry is outrageous!

Posted by: Max231 | October 3, 2009 6:25 AM | Report abuse

Question: "I have basic cable on my HDTV. I get maybe 60 or so basic channels. Of that, Only 12 or so are in HD."

Answer:

There are a couple of things going on here. First, there are only a few channels on analog cable are HD(if your area still has analog service), so even if the channel claims it has HD shows, you wouldn't be getting many HD channels without an HD converter.

Second, many stations slap 'HD' in the bottom corner of your screen to state that they are HD capable, not that the show you are watching is in HD. For example ESPN HD is almost total HD (though in 720p), while SCIFI HD has just a few shows in HD. Yet the HD symbol is slapped on the corner of both stations 24/7.

Cable companies have a choice between Cisco (Scientific Atlanta) and Motorola for their boxes. If Comcast wants more computer like functions in their boxes they either have to figure out a way to program the proprietary boxes to do what they want, or beg Motorola to make a better box. Trying to make an itty bitty processor do big computer work can actually overheat those processors. Customers get kind of angry when their DVR starts smoking.

An open cable system (like just plugging the cable into your tv or vcr) would allow any manufacturer to make a cable box. Want a billion hours of recording and the ability to record 72 shows simultaneously? I am certain someone would make the box for you. For now, you get two recordings. Usually

Second, many stations slap 'HD' in the bottom corner of your screen to state that they are HD capable, not that the show you are watching is in HD. For example ESPN HD is almost total HD (though in 720p), while SCIFI HD has just a few shows in HD. On the up side, most of the national commercials are in HD.

The issues with the boxes are also kind of difficult. Cable companies have a choice between Cisco (Scientific Atlanta) and Motorola for their boxes. If Comcast wants more computer like functions in their boxes they either have to figure out a way to program the proprietary boxes to do what they want, or beg Motorola to make a better box.

An open cable system (like just plugging the cable into your tv or vcr) would allow any manufacturer to make a cable box. Want a billion hours of recording and the ability to record 72 shows simultaneously? I am certain someone would make the box for you. For now, you get two recordings. Usually.

Posted by: chrisp339 | October 3, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

Just one word: Satellite!

I love it and will NEVER go back to crappy cable services!

Posted by: joeblotnik49 | October 3, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Since cable can and does broadcast some stations in digital (Networks, PBS and a few random others) in the clear over QAM they should have the capability to at least broadcast the entire basic digital tier in the clear for QAM compatible DTVs, without any box, just like they currently broadcast basic analog in the clear. The box should be reserved for those that want to pay for extra services.

I have Comcast and I was an early HDTV adopter with one of the first CableCards they issued in this area. It had the potential to be a good solution for those that didn't want to deal with the box and works well for how I watch TV; I still use it. But unfortunately TV manufacturers eliminated CableCard capability from their sets over time. The cable companies wouldn't support it fully and it was an extra cost item for the manufacturers in a price competitive market.

(Tivo has CableCard capability but Tivo is another box - and Tivo would likely be out of the cable market as it currently exists without CableCards).

Comcast and the others need to get a clue that there are real and serious alternatives for consumers to get content on their TV sets these days. If they don't resolve this box thing, start offering al la carte, etc. they will surely find a declining subscriber base. The majority of younger people (under 30) have already figured this out and opt for alternatives to cable. (PS- I am over 50).

Posted by: trpt | October 3, 2009 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Cable just has too much power and this also includes Verizon FIOS. They like it like that and have in most cases no competition in their local markets. Sure you can sometimes get two choices of providers but when you look at all the hype and when it's all said and done each provider of services all come out very close to each other. You can get a great deal when you start up with someone but you sign for a year or two and then the high bills start rolling in. Satellite is the same problem it's great in the beginning but when the low rate period is over the prices jump way back up and for all you people out there take one look at who does own the Satellite companies... it's the very same people and companies who own the cable and phone companies... no wonder we as a consumer don't have choices...

Posted by: Concerned5 | October 3, 2009 10:25 AM | Report abuse

The happiest day for me was when I moved to a house that had the possibility of satellite and I could finally dump Comcast.

Posted by: Ferrelocha | October 3, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I have to agree with joeblotnik49, satellite TV is REALLY nice. I got fed up with Comcast in June and switched to DirecTV - no fuss, I can purchase extra converter boxes or lease them, when I called with some questions, somebody actually from the US answered the call right away and answered my questions.

Satellite TV - has no problems, causes no problems, and flushes away the Comcast problems. Recommended.

Posted by: steveo2059 | October 3, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

There's a company called CETON that is developing a computer video card with multiple digital cable tuners built into it. You would just plug your cable card from the cable company into your video card slot, and then your home computer can broadcast cable, record shows, time shift, etc. I think it's a neat idea if it comes to fruition. NO more need for the cable box, and more control over your shows, like exporting them to handheld devices.

Posted by: teh_porter | October 3, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I have Comcast, and have had it for 20+ years, and like every one else, I hate them. But, that said, I ordered my free little digital boxes, they came, I installed them, they didn't work, but after only a couple of minutes on the phone, they worked! I agree, they are SO SLOW. They are small, thank goodness, and they send a little adapter (weird little dingy thing) along with each box, so you don't have to have the box visible, the remote works with the adapter.

I wish Comcast cared about their existing customers, I never got a "deal" from them when I first got cable TV, and they've NEVER rewarded their long time customers with anything, except higher and higher prices. Yet they are always offering "incredible specials" online, in snail mail, on TV. Why not give those of us who have paid them tens of thousands of dollars over the years with a little discount now and then on our existing service. My daughter, with DirecTV has gotten a few, and it was a nice surprise. Comcast still has a lot to learn about customer service.

Posted by: momj47 | October 3, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

I live in Baltimore City and have Comcast digital cable. My girlfriend has Comcast and lives in Baltimore County. Several months ago, she got the notice about getting the small set top adapters for other TVs, but I as yet have received no offer. Of course, she also gets bombarded by Verizon to get FIOS, while those of us in the city are told, yeah, it's coming. Someday.

Posted by: purdyjack | October 3, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

ROB-Today FANS email In About BOX, They Mean Conversion BOX. Most Want SET TOP Box, NOT Sure What It Might BE.
. Its Too Early To TEll if INTEL Can make Fantastic dual Core In YOUR TV, Processing Unit. Its Next Years item, As Processors Are In production, yet public Wants To Know About Arieal ANTENA Amplifier & Most From Unit HAVE. & ?Why For Box, When Already Have 4 tuners, Tapes, Discs, Cameras & Forgot RADIOS Roots, once Such Afternoon FAN base, Most are Only dimly aware of TV Alternatives or ALL IN ONE TV Coming from Several Chip Makers, SOON.

Signed:PHYSICIAN THOMAS STEWART von DRASHEK M.D.

Posted by: ThomasStewart1 | October 3, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

For 30 years I have been able to simply plug my TV's and VCR's into the cable and watch all the analog channels I paid for (un-encrypted). Now, all the digital channels are encrypted. Why can't Comcast supply un-encrypted channels to customers, the same way they do for analog channels. I don't care about their pay-per-view or anything else involving two-way communications (which requires their box).

Posted by: geoff5 | October 3, 2009 6:29 PM | Report abuse

I was sooo close to dropping Comcast... but then during the digital transition some of the local broadcasters (7 and 9) moved their digital broadcasts from the UHF frequencies they had been using to some VHF channels. Now we can't get them out here in the burbs with a reasonably small antenna. We got them just fine until they pulled this switcheroo on the transition date. You just can't win.....

Posted by: raylo | October 3, 2009 7:27 PM | Report abuse

Everyone's problems that are commented here are the result of the oligopoly that media and ISPs have. There is no freemarket when it comes to cable. They pay politicians to keep any other players from entering their markets.

Posted by: Nobody78 | October 4, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

If you're sick of cable, consider trying an antenna. You can get HD digital channels over the air for free (except the one-time cost of the antenna, which can be as little as $10-35) that look identical to cable. With digital TV, it doesn't matter how you receive the zeros and ones. I live 60+ miles away from the transmitters and I'm getting free HDTV with an amplified antenna. No, you don't get anywhere near as many channels, but that can be balanced out by the availability of countless shows free over the internet, on demand, not to mention with much fewer commercials. Ask yourself how much time you spend watching cable-only channels. Also ask youself how often you actually watch 98% of the cable channels you get. I found that much of my viewing was local channels anyway -- the ones that are broadcasting in HD for free.

Posted by: ninjah | October 4, 2009 4:44 PM | Report abuse

Haven't had cable since I moved out of my parents house, 15yrs ago. Used to watch over the air (OTA) broadcasts before the Digital transition, but now I only get PBS(yea) and Spanish channels so its internet TV for me. Hulu and Netflix are how I watch TV now, hook my computer up to my CRT TV(free from friends). I also find that I read more and listen to more NPR. Can't wait for the "Next" revolution!

Just need better internet speeds
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/posttech/2009/09/consumer_often_get_slower_inte.html

Posted by: ericstrattenRN | October 5, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I think that it's amazing that with the digital switchover, the government did not provide any protections for cable viewers. In the old days of analog, we purchased cable to get better reception, and cable ready sets let us not pay the converter box rental fees or have multiple remotes. When going digital, the cable companies (and FIOS) apparently see decent reception as a premium service. QAM digital ready TVs are capable of great picture quality, if the signal is not encrypted by the cable company. Comcast seems to make a good percentage of it's income from renting cable boxes. Cable cards have not been mandated, and there have bee extra "Digital Outlet" fees (11.95 per!), when Cable's big selling point used to be you can add as many analog sets in your home as you want, vs. Satellite (where you needed a box for each TV). PUT ALL BASIC CABLE CHANNELS, INCLUDING HD IN CLEAR QAM!

Posted by: Thunderthud | October 7, 2009 8:14 AM | Report abuse

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