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.