Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sic Semper Tyrannis!

Sorry to be away for so long

It’s one of life’s little frustrations to go to a favorite blog and find that several days have gone by without anything new having been posted and I just want everyone to know that I feel their frustration.

Now that I’m back, feel some of mine.

Last Saturday, I had a Cablevision installer come over and replace their all-but-useless DVR cable box with a single multi-stream cable card, which was inserted into my new HD-TiVo. I had been an early adopter of TiVo back in the 90s, but its inability to record and display HD content relegated it to white elephant status, and it was given up (actually, given to Mom). TiVo went HD a few years back, but the machines were expensive, and I was determined to make my new relationship with Cablevision’s DVR box work.

For those not familiar with the numerous Cable and Satellite forums out there, the program guide and DVR software in Cablevision’s Scientific Atlanta cable box is universally considered to be worthless. Instead of implementing TiVo software in their set-top boxes like Comcast and DirecTV have done, Cablevision has kept to their always dependable business model and done nothing – sticking their head in the sand and pretend that people won’t want the hassle of switching to Verizon’s FiOS service.

As for TiVo, their two HD models now operated on cable cards only, thus eliminating the need for cable boxes entirely. Essentially, the actual cable wire that had been plugged into the cable box now goes directly into TiVo, and the cable cards (roughly the size of a credit card) allow TiVo to decode the scrambled digital signals. After TiVo ironed out some initial functionality issues with the cards (and after a recent Woot discount chipped away the last vestiges of my resolve) I jumped back aboard the TiVo train.

The install went fine (though the first card couldn’t be “bound” to my account, but the technician had a second with him) and I’d be lying if I said that hearing the TiVo ‘blips’ and ‘bloops’ didn’t tug the geek-strings a wee bit. I had forgotten the crazy joy of setting up season passes, searching under actors (“Anything with Peter Cushing coming up for the next two weeks? Oh, right, Star Wars…”) and all those crazy TiVo recommendations that can, in a single day, speak both to my idealized self (a documentary on the president of Liberia) and its more pragmatic cousin (Banacek reruns!) But the best part was finally being able to wade through the channels that I’ve had to turn my back on because of the slow, unsearchable guide on CV’s box. Since going high-def, I’ve limited my watching to the HD channels in the 700 neighborhood and all but forgotten things like Encore Mystery, Turner Classic, Flix, and the hundred or so others that I’ve been paying for all this time. Plus, the cable card rental fee is only a couple of bucks a month.

The rub? The (extremely nice) CV tech informs me that a letter is currently circulating to their cable card customers informing them that CV is about to move its entire slate of Voom HD channels (including our favorites, MonstersHD and KungFuHD) to something called Switched Digital Video, or SDV in April. This allows more than one channel to “share” a single space, allowing CV to save massive amounts of bandwidth – and it will not work with cable cards, which means it will not work with TiVo. But never fear, you’ll be able to receive all channels with – you guessed it – CV’s marvelous set top box and a rental fee of $16.50 per month (for box and DVR service)

Years of terrible service was finally made up for just over a year ago, when CV added several new HD channels, including National Geographic, Discovery, and the Voom package. The move was the direct result of Verizon’s rollout of FiOS into CV’s backyard, finally giving people some degree of choice. Now I can’t even pretend to know exactly how this technology works, but apparently SDV is happening all over the country, and typically effects the channels that the provider feels are “specialty” viewing. While I’ll admit that MonstersHD isn’t to everyone’s taste, the fact that this will not effect the literally dozens of sports channels that I have no need for, or the dozens of digital music channels that no one listens to, or the dozens of foreign language channels (seriously, Puerto Rico only wishes it had as many Spanish language channels as Westchester County) is aggravating in the extremis

What can be done? Not much, probably. TiVo has said that it has worked with the cable companies for a “dongle” that would allow their unit to properly decode the channels, but the build and distribution would be in the hands of the cable companies. We can complain to the FCC but I can’t see that doing much. What we can do, however, is complain. Even if you don’t use the cards, the principal – that we can’t let them punish people who explore better options for viewing cable – applies to everyone.

(above pic was swiped with love from Gizmodo)