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.

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