Off the Grid, Still In the Box: where's Cable TV headed?

The cable box can make channel serfs of us all. It's big, it's bulky, it has an interface an Excel spreadsheet might salute, and it sucks down too much electricity. It's one reason why cable TV bottom-feeds in customer-satisfaction surveys--only airlines and newspapers score lower in the University of Michigan's research.

But for a still-sizable majority of American viewers, the cable box is How They Get TV, and nobody can fix it except for their cable operators.

The industry's just-finished Cable Show in Boston featured exhibits by dozens of networks hoping to see new channels added to cable lineups, plus a few starry-eyed demos of technology we may not get for years. (Disclosure: A freelance client, Discovery Communications, owns quite a few channels.) But it also revealed modest hope for "clunky set-top boxes"--to quote an acknowledgment of subscriber gripes in National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell's opening speech.

One came from Comcast, the largest TV provider in the U.S. Its X1 "next-generation television experience" features a streamlined home screen that downplays the program-guide grid to give greater prominence to DVR recordings (as seen above) and video-on-demand offerings. And because this front end is hosted on Comcast's servers, it should be easier to tweak than one coded into each DVR.

An Apps menu on the X1 home screen includes versions of Pandora, Shazam and Facebook plus sports, traffic and weather tools--but not the Netflix and Amazon video apps on most "connected" TVs.

Comcast says it will push this to many existing boxes, starting in Boston, within weeks. In a month, users with an iPhone or iPad should have a remote-control app that lets you issue commands with simple gestures and opens a search dialog when you flip the device to its landscape orientation. The 37-button remote shipping with new X1 boxes itself represents a simplification from the 53 buttons on current hardware.

The two companies that lead the cable-box business in the U.S., Cisco and Motorola Mobility, also seem anxious to get off the program grid.

Cisco's Videoscape interface offers a simple sideways menu of basic options that reveal further choices above or below each item--like the "Xross" menu on Sony PlayStations, TVs and Blu-ray players--and offers remote-control apps for iOS and Android. The Videoscape set-top box supports WiFi video streaming through a house, another good idea. But you'll have to wait for your cable operator to sign on; services in China and Israel offer the Videoscape front end, but none in the U.S. have so far.

Motorola's plans look a little further out. Its "DreamGallery" interface (from a Swedish firm it acquired recently enough for the demo setup to price movie rentals in krona) fills its home screen with thumbnails for live, recorded and on-demand programs; the program guide hides beyond one button among many. But Motorola's iOS and Android apps duplicate that look instead of tailoring it to fit phone or tablet screens.

And, once again, you'll have to wait on your cable operator for these upgrades.

For most viewers, the only easy alternative to a cable service's taste is TiVo's DVRs--which this fall will be able to send recordings via WiFi to iOS devices with an add-on TiVo Stream box.

The Federal Communications Commission has explored mandating an "AllVid" standard for cable and satellite tuning that would open this market, but FCC personnel, including chair Julius Genachowski, didn't bring it up at the show.

A further hope for box-free cable surfaced on a Samsung TV tuning into Cablevision's full feed over the Internet through an app. But it's only a test, with no timetable for deployment.

So the most relevant part of the Cable Show for current customers was the exhibit of a new "light sleep" mode to cut idle cable-box power consumption by roughly 20 percent--on one sample box, from about 27 watts down to 20. Future hardware, possibly including flash storage instead of hard drives, could make a bigger difference (and some current models offer untapped efficiency options, as Daniel Frankel noted on PaidContent). But even this modest improvement, due in software updates and new boxes later this year, should deliver one inarguable benefit: electric-bill savings to offset the next hike in your cable rate.


  1. US consumers have demonstrated they care little about U/I through the near abandonment of Tivo.  Even though they had a huge lead on everyone else, and a far superior user experience, Tivo has practically lost the race as the average consumer is perfectly happy with their lame DVR experience from their cable box company.  These days companies have to show something to look competitive, but really the user experience is not a differentiator for cable-box mfr’s.   Once we get a more open standard with the ability for carrier-agnostic boxes, this market may open up again, but until then they’re wasting their time and engineering dollars.

    1. Clearly what you’re saying isn’t true.  People are not satisfied with their experience, that’s the whole point.  People also fly budget airlines in droves, but as the post points out, people hate airlines.

      Macs have had a better user experience than PC’s for years, they still hold a smaller market share.

      It’s about price; and justification.  I’m a UX designer, but I’d still rather not pay hundreds of pounds for a TV box I use a handful of hours a week; whereas paying 15% extra for a better quality computer with a better experience is a no-brainer.

      Tivo has really picked up popularity here in the UK, but only because Virgin (our cable provider) now uses their boxes as their standard DVR – but the point is that people do like them (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they ‘like’ their set-top box before Tivo came along).

      Most people likely resent paying an extra £100+ so that they have a barely passable UI.  The same could be said for phones 5 years ago.

    2. I think it is more about convenience and bundling. I don’t mind installing a Tivo. My wife would have a difficult time and my parents wouldn’t even think of it. Most of my neighbors and a fair number of my friends are in the last group. I think lots of people want the cable company to come in and install it and be responsible for it working.

      As NathanHornby points out, Tivo increased market share only after a cable provider uses them as their standard boxes. I think Tivo’s only hope is to partner with cable companies. Selling a DVR that needs to be integrated with a TV, cable box, DVD, etc. will always be a niche market when they sell directly to consumers.

      1. Good point.  Also worth noting that Virgin come and install the box free of charge, and own it, so are responsible for replacing it/fixing it when something goes awry – makes a big difference in uptake – even though you’ll rely on it due to the service being so shaky.

        1. And thein lies another difference between the business models…
          If the Tivo isn’t furnished by the cable/satellite provider, that means either a huge upfront cost or  a smaller upfront cost and yet another monthly bill to pay after an already-high cable bill.  That’s tough to compete with a free DVR, performs its basic job, but miserable to use.

          That said, I had an HD Tivo purchased directly from the satellite provider DirectTV, still had to pay an upfront cost for the unit, and within a year I was forced into the options to either buy a new, non-Tivo HD DVR from DirecTV or miss out of a vast majority of their new HD content (I believe I was limited to less than a dozen channels).  And since I was still in a 2-year contract because I “upgraded” to the Tivo, I couldn’t switch to another provider without an early termination fee.  So I guess it doesn’t matter how good the interfaces are because the companies all suck when you have to deal with them for anything other than just paying your bills.

    3. Tivo is great but is easiest to use if you have analog cable, where the tuner(s) in the Tivo can do their job.  In many digital cable cities (and Comcast here made us move from analog to “starter digital”) it’s a hassle to get a CableCard for a Tivo, and you have the old “the output of the cable box is one channel, channel 3/4” problem which basically makes recording kind of a pain.

    4. TiVo is an interesting case. As Bloo notes below, getting a CableCard set up in a TiVo can be a pain. One friend just tweeted that he’s now spent 10 days trying to get Comcast to provision his DVR correctly–and yet my father-in-law had no trouble setting up a TiVo HD with a Comcast CableCard over the phone a few years ago.

      But TiVo’s initial and ongoing costs are an issue. $12.95 and up seems a lot for what, from the viewer’s perspective, is just a data feed like any other. (I solved that by buying a friend’s used TiVo HD with a lifetime-of-the-box account attached.)

  2. Why is it taking so long for computers and television to meld? Ever since I played with my Atari 2600, I figured it was inevitable…yet the two cultures remain resolutely separate, to the point where people actually watch television through their computer monitors.

    1. It’s partially to do with affordance and environment.  Up until relatively recently you’d have a computer in your home office and your TV in your living room.  A computer is an ‘active’ device, and a TV is a ‘passive’ device.  You likely wouldn’t want to sit upright in an office chair to watch Jeopardy any more than you’d want to recline and type an email 15 feet from the screen.

      In contrast to yourself I just don’t think they’re particularly compatible experiences (lots of research on interactive TV validates this).  I’d be far happier with a big TV in the corner of my living room and an iPad on my lap; I don’t want to interrupt Diagnosis Murder to check Facebook updates – which also raises the point about the number of intended users. A family watches a TV, a single user operates a PC.

      I think content delivery should be the primary focus (i.e. Netflix and iTunes style content), rather than further integration (have you used an internet TV?  They’re shit).

      That said, I’m sure we’ll see better integration in the coming years, the rumored Apple TV set might be just the kick-in-the-nads you’re looking for; and they’re one of the few companies I’d trust to get it right. As you say, people do now watch more TV content on computers (I’d put this down to content delivery though, rather than a problem with integration) and I think newer generations will have different expectations.

      1. I understand what you’re saying, except when I don’t. People watch TV on their PHONES now. It boggles my mind. My mom used to tell me not to sit any closer than six feet from the screen, or I’d go blind. If she could see me now, sitting a foot from a monitor that’s bigger than the TV screen we used to have in our living room…or holding my phone six inches from my face. It seems like nobody watches television on television any more, despite every home having half a dozen of the damned things. All I ever see in sports forum discussions is requests for a stream, and people continue to chatter about the game (or the show) when it’s on. It seems to me that the Internet on television should be *old* by now.

        1. I think the problem is that it doesn’t work both ways.  What you’re actually talking about is TV on computers, not computers built into TV’s.  They’re very different things.

          I enjoy the convenience of being able to watch TV on the train on a long journey, but I have absolutely no need to pull up Google on my TV.  Getting TV on a computer (for me at least) is about convenience, it’s not an ideal viewing experience.  I’ll still likely always want a TV for TV and a computer for a computer.  Until everything is done from one tiny device with holographic projectors, of course.

          1. I agree with this.  Back in college cira 1998 or so, I had one of the original ATI All-In-Wonder video cards with TV tuner.  It worked great because I didn’t need to have another 19″+ CRT in the dorm room taking up space.  And I could watch TV, surf the net, and work on a paper all at the same time.

        2. “People watch TV on their PHONES now.”
          “it seems like nobody watches television on television any more,”

          These are, I think, bits of confirmation bias that seem to be quite common throughout the geek/nerd niche. Point of fact, very few people (in relative terms) actually watch TV on their phones and, despite the choruses of “I cut the cable” from, again, the geek crowd, you’ll still find that, overwhelmingly, people still watch tv on their tv. And, while the number of alternate sources have grown, it’s still tv. And the preferred display is the tv set.

    2. I don’t _want_ the computer (set top box or “smart TV”)  integrated into the “monitor” – when the computer hardware because not-powerful-enough to run the latest whiz=bang app that I would like, I only want to upgrade the box, not discard a perfectly serviceable display.

  3. I look to telecom companies only for connectivity to the internet because I realized I was paying more and more for channels that seemed to be racing each other to the bottom, content-wise. I cut the cable and now buy only the shows I want to watch. I watch a lot less TV and I enjoy what I do watch more.

    I’m not alone. I suspect growth in this industry is over and we are entering a period of aggressive vertical integration and bandwidth fees/caps as everyone flails to make their projections. It’s gonna suck.

    1. I think you’re probably right.  Here in the UK I’m stuck with Virgin (cable), who boast the fastest internet – which is unreliable and has a complex ‘fair use’ policy (basically you can have 100mb connection, but you’re only allowed to use it after 9pm – and if you’re in the top 1% of downloaders in your area, you might get capped) – I like to call it the “You can have a fast connection but please don’t use it” package.

      I’m already sick of data providers offering bandwidths that they clearly can’t deliver; it just results in shitty congested lines; all for the sake of some trite marketing message.  I’d prefer 10mb, completely unlimited, over a crippled 100mb that drops out every hour; problem is that’s harder to sell to the layman, who for some reason needs to see their speed go up every year even though all they do is read the Mail Online.

      1. who for some reason needs to see their speed go up every year even though all they do is read the Mail Online.

        The Mail’s a really slow load.

  4. I use MythTV as a DVR with antennas. The rabbit-ears antennas I use bring in the same channels I get through Comcast’s Xfinity sub-basic package, all with a clearer picture. In some cases (Pittsburgh), there are MORE channels available to watch via antenna when compared to Comcast.

    I’m looking forward to setting up a free-to-air satellite dish with MythTV.

  5. You know what I want, I want an analog/digital capable DVR.  That’s it.  I don’t want to rent it, I don’t want to have to use some shitty Time Warner prescribed box, I just want to go out and buy basically a digital VCR.

    And at one time I could…and then for some reason every company stopped making them.  And then there is Tivo.  I like the idea, but frankly I just want a stand alone box, I don’t need to pay a month subscription when all I want it to do is record at a given time for a given length.

    I don’t entirely blame the cable companies.  If I was in their position I do the same thing.  But at the same time I do blame the government for not forcing the cable card issue harder.  Hello 1985 called, welcome to the land of not cable ready.

  6. I rely on two very old ReplayTVs that need analog cable – which I keep expecting to be eliminated. Bit one bullet when we  almost had the Replay channel guide service cut off this year. Analog, no hi-def, but totally serviceable for the majority of TV programs available. The UI isn’t all that different from Tivo really. An Apple TV puck and Netflix streaming lets me catch up on most premium TV programs. At some point  something is going to die or go obsolete, but until then it just keeps working, and the automatic commercial skip works about 80% of the time. Worth it for that alone.

    Having grown up with Consol b&W rabbit ears reception, it’s amazing how little I really feel I need. 

    1. Wow! I reviewed one of the first Replay boxes back in 1999 (it’s long gone from the Post’s site, but a syndicated copy has somehow survived on the August Chronicle’s site: I’m amazed you still have one working. 

  7. For me, they can’t even give broadcast away. I don’t want a fire hose of bitstreams of which I have no control. I want the bits I want when I want them, A.K.A. on demand/streaming.

  8. This whole topic is or will soon be moot. In the late 90’s only geeks listened to mp3s. Now look at ’em. My mom just asked me how to watch TV over the internet for her summer home. It’s only a (short) matter of time before everything is on demand.

  9. I’ve never understood all the tech astute commentators who have continued to say “people don’t want to watch TV on their computers”.  For at least 6-10 years PC’s have been plenty cheap enough to dedicate one to serving the TV, as I have.  For 8 years I’ve used a now unsupported DVR software called Snapstream that does all a TIVO does, but with a free listing subscription. The encryption of all basic cable made me dump the cable, and now I record from a roof antenna, and watch recordings, or Hulu, netflix, and any other streaming service or downloadable media from the PC using a rf remote control. I’m a little surprised that Netflix still hasn’t come up with a TV friendly browser interface or desktop client designed to be used from the couch.

    The cable co have dug their own graves by dragging their feet into the streaming world.  Had they not priced themselves so outrageously they wouldn’t be losing so many customers to streaming. There’s many of us who refuse to pay for cable who might pay HBO the same as they would get from cable, but that deal is not on the market due to cable’s influence. So viewers wait for it to get to Netflix and HBO loses income, or Bittorrent the content and HBO gets nothing.  This model is unstable but cable is stuck like deer in the headlights of a new media ecosystem.

    1.  This individual speaks the truth.  Cable needs to change, allow people to subscribe to channels individually, and focus more on streaming and on-demand.  They put that off at their own peril.

  10. You know a company like Comcast is too big for most everyone’s good once they don’t even bother to make their remote codes compatible with various mainstream brands of new HDTV remotes, etc.

    They… just… don’t… care…  and why should they when they are pretty much a monopoly?

  11. Tivo may have the best interface, but the nobody wants to pay a monthly fee for nothing. A home built DVR pc is not only possible, but IMO it’s the best DVR you can buy. Because of the DRM, you need to use Windows 7 with Media Center, MythTV need not apply for the majority of cable channels, at least on Comcast. After long last there are a couple of viable CableCard tuners available, the three tuner  networked SiliconDust HD HomeRun Prime and the 4 tuner Ceton InfiniTV. And the recordings are available to any other Windows 7 media center desktop/Home theater PC on your network. The result is so much better than Comcast’s horrible offering its worth the time, effort and expense.

    1. I tried WMC, and hated the interface, it made browsing files it didn’t record a nightmare.

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