A Trip To The Cable Company

All I could think of today when I visited your New Haven office today was they’ve brought that DMV experience to the private sector!

Oh Comcast. There are so many people who work for you with whom I’ve had contact and who are wonderful. In fact that part of Comcast is nearly universal. Yet all I could think of today when I visited your New Haven office today was they’ve brought that DMV experience to the private sector!

I drove to New Haven to replace my RNG200 HD DVR. I’m now on my third.

You’ve seen TiVo? There will never be any confusion between it and this DVR!

To reach a higher channel when tuning you press up. To reach a higher channel when in the program guide you press down. Need I say more?

I pulled into the Comcast lot. No empty spaces. When a car finally did pull out another Comcast subscriber who’d gotten there after me pulled into the space. He was wearing a New Haven Parking Authority uniform with his name embroidered on the front.

This kind of thing is so irksome because he knows he did the wrong thing and just didn’t give a damn. I would so like to be a putz and find a way to get back, but I will leave it pass.

There were three long lines leading to four windows in the office. One woman asked another how it worked with three feeding four? No one knew. It was a situation that wasn’t poorly thought it. It just wasn’t thought out!

The waiting room itself is one of those drab places that doesn’t seem to be a profit center and is treated as such. Notices and advisories were printed then taped on the wall. Some were curling at the edges the way forgotten paper often does.

I could have had Comcast come to the house to replace my dead DVR. This seemed easier… well it did in the abstract. I waited in line and looked at my watch.

When I finally got to the window the agent was great. Unfortunately her microphone only worked every second or third sentence. I looked through the dirty, thick, plastic window symbolizing customer distrust and tried to read her lips.

I am a Comcast shareholder. I’ve owned a small position in their stock for a very long time. I appreciate the potential for profit in their business. But as a shareholder this experience was not a confidence builder.

They have a monopoly in providing TV and Internet service to my house. They won’t always.

Comcast, Allow Me To Kvetch About Your DVR

Nearly every operation on this DVR makes you think development stopped as soon as a feature worked. No one ever considered whether it worked well.

An admission before I start. I fully concede I’m about to kvetch because one of life’s little unnecessary luxuries isn’t luxurious enough. Guilty. Get over it.

We have a very nice HD TV in the family room. It is connected to a Comcast supplied Cisco RNG200 DVR. Notice I used nice for the TV, not the DVR.

Nearly every operation on this DVR makes you think development stopped as soon as a feature worked. No one ever considered whether it worked well.

With football season underway I’ve got two games on the TV at once. The Phils/Mets take up most of the screen with the Giants/Panthers in a small window.

If you were designing this system you’d put the smaller window in a corner. It’s much less likely to intrude if tucked away.

Not on the RNG200! The inset window is where the screen’s corner would be if I was watching old school 4:3 standard def not 16:9 high def. This might be understandable if not for the fact the RNG200 knows I’m watching in HD!

I use an HDMI cable between the TV and DVR. That’s a ‘smart’ system which sends data in both directions. The DVR sees where its signal goes and knows the screen resolution.

With this system the out-of-the-way window ends up being near the middle of the action blocking things I want to see.

This is just one in a long series of almost complete and poorly enabled features.

  • On-Demand is clumsy and excruciatingly slow.
  • Scheduling a recording can take dozens of button presses just to find a show.
  • The on screen program summary is often edited as if it isn’t meant to be read.
  • Standard def duplicates of high def channels clutter things up even though as mentioned earlier the box should know I’m not interested in seeing them in 4:3.

When you see what’s available with a TiVo or even my homebuilt MythTV this seems more-and-more unnecessarily irksome. How Comcast does this in light of the competition from U-verse and the satellite providers is beyond me.

Why Super Bowl Ads Cost So Much

There is rewinding and multiple viewing of the ads on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s one of the few times it happens.

Everyone talks about the ads run during the Super Bowl.

Before the game all you hear is the ridiculous cost – this year around $90,000 per second. After the game (and the money’s been spent) the spots are compared.

Is it all worth it? Probably. From the New York Times TV Decoder blog:

For instance, the commercials “got a higher audience than the game” in homes with the TiVo video recorder service, said Todd Juenger, vice president and general manager for audience research and measurement at the New York office of TiVo. “There is rewinding and multiple viewing of the ads” on Super Bowl Sunday, he added. “It’s one of the few times it happens.”

The phrase is, “Content is king.” Good commercials are good entertainment. People will watch anything, if they’re entertained.

Concerning Google – What An Idiot I’ve Been

What’s the biggest Internet success story? Google, right? And everyone, until recently myself included, thinks it’s because Google is so good at performing searches.

Tonight, I’ve changed my mind.

Before Google, there were some very good search engines. There were AltaVista and Metacrawler and others whose names are now lost to me. Yahoo!&#185 was more a directory than a search engine.

As a power Internet user in the late 90s, I was not unhappy. I was able to search and get the results I wanted with little trouble.

So why is Google such a big deal? It’s not the search as much as it’s, their search seems benevolent.

Google was very smart. They cleaned up the home page.

All the other site where you could find stuff were gravitating toward being portals. Their home pages were full of news and tips and links and they included display ads. It was obvious to their users, they were sales machines. Please click. Please buy.

Google was basically a box where you entered text and not much more. No ads.

But searching is not a one web page affair. The search page leads to the results page. No search ends on the home page. Google was satisfied making their money on that landing page.

After the home page, every subsequent page on Google does contain ads. And, they are contextually tied to what’s on that page. If it’s possible to say, they are good ads.

It’s genius. But I don’t think it would have worked had Google not been willing to treat their home page as a loss leader. No ads!

As time went on Google has been able to extend their brand. They have contextual ads on webpages, like this one (look to the right). The have a mail service, also with contextual ads. They have other services too, but the payoff (to them) is always the same, and you never see any sign of commerce when you begin to do what you want to do.

Even better, since each ‘lead’ is prequalified, they can charge a higher CPM.

It’s not like a movie on TBS, where the first block is 45 minutes long and by the end you’re stopping for spots every 120 seconds. Google works so well because they run commercials and no one minds!

In this TiVo world, where the publisher of the New York Times worries he won’t have a paper based paper in five years and where CBS has just announced they’re selling a handful of TV stations for a few million more than they paid for just one of them, Google has succeeded in making us forget they are running commercials.

It is the genius of what they do, and any other elegance in the performance of search is no more than an interesting footnote.

I doubt, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were testing Google at Stanford, they had a clue what their success could be. They were lucky wise to give away the product they had worked so hard to develop.

Business is always better when you don’t worry if people will buy what you’re selling, but instead try to sell what they are dying to buy.

&#185 – I have been on the Internet long enough to have sent a comment to Yahoo! and gotten a personally written response that referred to “Jerry’s reaction” to what I’d suggested. “Jerry” was Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang. That ain’t happening today.

Zero Security Policy

I just received an email from Scientific Atlanta. They’re the ones who built my cable box/DVR… the one that isn’t nearly as good as TiVo.

Dear Explorer eClub member,

It’s no secret that HDTV is growing in popularity, and at Scientific Atlanta, we’re listening to what consumers want. Share with us what you know about HDTV. Take the survey here.

All eligible members who participate by November 27, 2006 will be entered to win an HD television.*

Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us.

Obviously, they didn’t want to hear much from me, because after two questions I was finished. If I had an HDTV they probably would have wanted to know more.

What followed, however, amazed me. With the confirmation screen came a list of EVERYONE else who entered! When I refreshed the page, the list lengthened.

In this day and age of spams, scams and worse, you would expect companies to double check this stuff… wouldn’t you?

Blogger’s addendum – As I was finishing this entry, I went back to Scientific Atlanta’s site to see if the problem still existed. It looks like the survey’s been taken down, as I received a “Service Unavailable” message.

Rod Serling Documentary

I have two DVRs. One is from Comcast. Its strength is being able to record digital cable channels. As DVRs go, it’s not very good.

The second DVR is self built. It runs MythTV software – a totally free Linux based application. I claim to have installed it on old throwaway hardware, but there were enhancements as I went along. It’s not totally reclaimed from scrap.

MythTV’s strength is its software. It is elegantly programmed and takes full advantage of a MySQL database. That means I can search for TV shows by title, genre, actors. You get the idea. It even knows how to record a show once, no matter how many times it airs or how many channels carry it.

I can also program what Tivo calls a ‘season pass.’ Every episode of a single show gets scarfed up on my hard drive.

That’s what I did with PBS’ American Masters series. OK, I’ve only watched a few, but they’re on my drive, just in case.

Tonight, after Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, I decided to delve into the episode on Rod Serling. Good move.

As a kid I watched Serling’s Twilight Zone. I remember having the crap scared out of me by some episodes. They were genuinely scary without being violent and with no special effects – none!

I knew they were good, because I heard they were good. I was too young to make that kind of value judgment on my own.

Now I understand more of what Serling was about. His work seen today, some of it fifty years old or more, is very impressive.

Rod Serling worked in the Golden Age of Television. You could make the case he was an integral reason it was the Golden Age.

Black and white clips of The Twilight Zone, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater and other dramatic anthologies present TV as a different animal. Writing and acting were critical. Production values were an afterthought.

Nearly every clip has featured actors I recognized from appearances long after the 50s. Many, like Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith and Jack Klugman had distinguished careers beyond television. There were also quirky scenes with actors out of place, like Ed Wynn, normally a slapstick comedian, playing a fight trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, or 14 year old Mickey Dolenz in The Velvet Alley, part of the Playhouse 90 series. Mike Wallace is even there, lit cigarette in hand, interviewing Rod Serling one-on-one.

Today’s episodic television looks for quick payoffs. TV shows have multiple plots going simultaneously. We no longer have the attention span to absorb ethereal writing. Serling would be quite unhappy. Serling’s type of television isn’t done today.

There’s no way to go back in time. That’s a shame. I’m just glad there are moments like this when I can take another look at why television became such an influential medium and why, even today, so many clearly remember these shows.

How I Got MythTV

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I accumulate computer stuff. And, as more equipment comes in, more parts move to the attic where they await… let’s call it reassignment.

I’ve just rebuilt my ‘main’ machine, replacing some of its innards. A month or so ago, a friend’s sister gave me her discarded PC. And, with Steffie at college and the proud owner of a very pretty Dell laptop, I have her old AMD500.

My junk pile is large and old. Most of what I’ve got is way behind the curve. From time-to-time I’ve forced myself to throw stuff away. It’s a painful experience.

Still, I recently found myself with an old video tuner/capture card, an older Nvidia video card, Steffie’s 500 mHz machine and a posting on digg.com (actually, here are all the Digg postings about MythTV).

The world’s best HTPC&#185 distribution now includes MythTV 0.19.fixes and lots of under-the-hood improvements since R5A30.2. Everyone should upgrade from previous versions. So stop reading and go download it via bittorrent at http://mythic.tv !

Perfectly clear now? It wasn’t to me, but a little light went on over my head.

They are referring to KnoppMyth. KnoppMyth is based on MythTV, a free set of programs to turn a computer into a DVR. KnoppMyth is referred to as “The world’s best HTPC distribution” because it allows you to put a disk in a computer and come back with the job totally done – as long as you want a computer that’s nothing but a DVR.

OK not quite that easy, but close enough.

Yesterday I downloaded files, burned a CD and began to install… and install… and install. I had no idea what I was doing and refused to read any documentation. Not only that, one critical part of the puzzle (a router) was unplugged and I didn’t realize it.

Sometime late last night, my job was sort of done. I still had to configure the system to recognize my particular hardware. And, I did.

Holy cow – I have a mainly free Tivo! That’s the point of this entry.

This old machine is somewhat limited. I can’t watch and record at the same time and the quality is good, not great. Still, I took an old computer and turned into something (oh – I hate to say this) useful.

If they’re listening at my cable company, this thing is better than the DVR I pay you for! That’s not because of the quality, but because of the amazing program guide and the ability to program it online!

All the programming info is parsed into a MySQL (if those initials mean nothing, don’t worry) database. That means it’s quickly and easily searched and manipulated.

I think I can stream what I record to any computer here on my home network or on the Internet. How cool is that? I began to follow the instructions for that conversion, but decided there wasn’t enough time tonight and temporarily ditched that idea.

This will keep me busy for a while.

&#185 – HTPC means Home Theater PC… I think.

My DVR – It’s Not TiVo

I read an article about DVRs, Digital Video Recorders, in the New York Times this weekend. Like most of the New York radio and television stations and the major news networks, I get many of my best ideas from the Times. Unlike them, I admit it.

The article, like so many on this subject, talked about how DVRs are. I have one and I do enjoy it. Unfortunately, I am nowhere near the TV nirvana experienced by the writers I’ve read.

The concept behind TiVo, Replay TV and the others is pretty simple. Record everything on a hard drive instead of tape, and use computer technology to make it easier, yet more powerful than an old school VCR.

The problem is, all DVRs are not created equal. I think mine, A Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8000 that I rent from Comcast&#185, is somewhere near the bottom. This is not the device people are clamoring for, though it is marketed in the same way.

I often hear about how TiVo will ‘learn’ about what you watch and then record programs based on your likes. This SA box doesn’t do that. It is the featured I would most like to see.

The menu system within this DVR is disjointed, non-intuitive and difficult to learn. I have programmed recordings based on time, but I couldn’t tell you how… and would have to hit a bunch of dead ends before I did it again.

Recording scheduled programs is easier, but still not simple. The program guide is two clicks of two separate buttons away. Why? Isn’t this the most used feature? It should be directly accessible.

Working back ward through the guide is nearly impossible. Going backward in time through midnight just doesn’t work.

The guide itself is sorely lacking. Movies and programs on some channels don’t show. Channels that I don’t subscribe to do show, adding an extra layer I have to move through before setting the recorder. The text information describing the programs is sparse.

In using the video-on-demand features, the same function on different menus uses a different keystroke! That violates one of the most basic rules of user interface design.

Possibly the most frustrating problem is the propensity of the 8000 to accept a key press from the remote control, but do nothing for a few seconds. Most likely during that time you have decided the machine didn’t get the first press and have pressed again. Now you have screwed up whatever you were attempting.

If Comcast or Scientific Atlanta asked, I’d tell them. I did once send a note to SA, using a form on their website. I never received a reply.

&#185 – As part of my retirement account I have Comcast stock. So, I am not a disinterested party here. However, since I’m talking down their product, you can see that hasn’t affected me.

More High Tech Comes Home

I am a sucker for high tech. The common term is early adopter. I had a PC in 1978 and was on the Internet in the late 80s (though it wasn’t the graphical World Wide Web we know today). Now, I have a DVR.

DVR stands for Digital Video Recorder. A TIVO is a DVR. They’ve been around for a few years but, as far as I can see, they are poorly understood by most people.

Instead of recording video onto tape, DVR’s record video on a hard drive. The disadvantage is the lack of portability – being able to take a tape from your machine to someone else’s, since there’s no tape to take. The advantage is, since this is more a computer than mechanical device, you can integrate database manipulation into the package. That means a DVR can read a program schedule, allowing you to program thing in an easier fashion.

TIVO takes it one step further. If you show an interest in watching people play poker, for instance, TIVO will start recording poker shows – even without you asking!

Now that I think about it, there’s another disadvantage to DVD – the cost. For TIVO, you pay to buy the box and then pay again with a monthly subscription (or a lifetime fee paid when you buy the TIVO).

That’s what kept me away from a DVR, even though I’ve never heard anything but positive reviews. In fact, last week I spoke to a friend who said TIVO was the best purchase he had ever made. That’s quite an endorsement.

People in my business are petrified by the prospect of DVRs. It will make our programming schedules meaningless. More importantly, skipping commercials is simple, and commercials pay my salary and pay for all the programming on over-the-air TV and much of cable.

Recently, my cable company Comcast, started offering their own DVR for $9.95 a month additional. As it is, we’re already paying about as much a month for cable service as I paid rent for my first apartment! I decided to give it a try.

Comcast has an office near where I work, so I stopped by Thursday afternoon to pick one up. There were two customer service reps and eight subscribers waiting in line. No way I’d have that much time. I left.

Thursday evening, after the early news, I headed back to Comcast. The line was shorter. Before long I was leaving with a Scientific Atlanta 8000 Explorer… but not before someone in line recognized me and asked if I was there to pay because my cable service had been cut off. It’s a thrill a minute.

The DVR replaces my digital able box and it was pretty simple. I swapped the power cord, antenna cable, and the three wires that bring the audio (2 channels) and video to the TV set. Inside the box a disk drive began to spin. My DVD was booting up like the computer it is.

Within two or three minutes it was finished. On my TV screen the Scientific Atlanta logo was replaced by some ratty type inside a box telling me my unit hadn’t been authorized, I couldn’t watch anything, and I should call the toll free Comcast number.

It was after midnight when I got the error screen and found out no one’s working at Comcast on the all night show. This is not to say I didn’t get passed around voice mail hell and actually did speak with a real person. What I found out after working my way through the menus was that he wasn’t in New Haven, and not being here there was nothing he could do.

The preceding paragraph would have been acceptable, except I did call back the next morning to fix the problem and did get it fixed… without human intervention! Why couldn’t that have been done the night before?

I don’t have too much experience yet, and I’m not totally won over, but it’s interesting. The Comcast DVR doesn’t have the intuitive ability to guess my viewing preferences like TIVO does. It is programmed by an online channel guide, which is very easy to operate.

Unlike VCRs, the DVR has multiple tuners and will record two shows and play back another, all at the same time. It gives any TV picture-in-picture capability. Since everything goes through the DVR, you’re always watching it and it’s always recording. That means you can pause live TV!

In order to control all of this, and the TV it’s connected to, the remote control has 53 buttons, including two that are multipurpose (channel and volume). It’s a handful, to say the least.

There are a few problems I’ve noticed so far. The channel guide for programming includes all sorts of channels I don’t get, making a long list even longer. I wanted to go through the list of current movies, but the addition of all these channels made it excruciating. On the other hand, at least five or six movie channels we do get weren’t on the list.

The clock on my unit is about 20 seconds slow. So, my recordings start 20 seconds late.

I haven’t notice it yet, but Helaine complained the tuner switched channels when a recording started. That’s fine for the machine, but Helaine didn’t want to watch the Simpsons.

Since the DVR replaces my old cable box I went to return it the next day. This time it was 10 in line for two reps. I’ll try again Monday.

Blogger’s note: As if it knew, as I was filing this entry, the DVR crashed. It was a quick blue screen full of text and then power off! A few seconds later I was able to revive it, though it took at least 30 seconds to start working.

Fun With Numbers

Every weekday morning when I wake up, sitting in my email inbox are the TV ratings from the night before. It is enlightening and horrifying at the same time.

It hasn’t always been this way. In the not too distant past, ratings were taken a few times a year, during the ‘sweeps’ period. That was nerve wracking in its own insidious way.

The amount of time I dwell on the numbers is often dependent on how we’re doing. During the bad times, I didn’t look at all. Too depressing. It’s probably the same thing for CNBC. Who wants to watch if they’re only talking about the money you’re losing.

Right now, we’re in moderately good times. We’re not #1, but we’re moving in the right direction – and we’re watching others who probably don’t want to be looking at the numbers on a daily basis.

Ratings are based on 15 minute blocks. So, a one hour show will have an aggregate rating made up of the four quarter hours. It can be fascinating to track those quarter hour numbers – but misleading. Even in a market the size of Connecticut, if a few people with ‘meters’ get a phone call or need to go to the bathroom at the wrong time, a significant chunk of your ratings go away.

A recent day had 440 households making up the entire ratings universe. During our early evening news there were probably 175-250 households with their TV’s on, divided by all the channels you can get. Now you see where the horrifying comes from.

When ratings go down, TV stations and networks blame methodology. Could be – I don’t know. When ratings go up, it’s sharp programming.

After the Super Bowl, the folks at Tivo publicized the fact that the Janet Jackson / Justin Timberlake moment was the most re-watched moment in TV. That means Tivo knows what everyone’s watching, every second! I would guess cable companies can do the same with addressable cable boxes (though there are more serious regulatory restrictions placed on cable companies).

If we can have accurate, massively sampled, instantaneous TV ratings, will we be better or worse off? There’s already lots of concern that TV plays for ratings – and to a great extent it does.

Imagine TV programmers could watch their numbers second by second. I shudder to think. There’s probably no putting this genie back in the bottle. Soon, we’ll have to live with it.