Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Cable Companies Should Embrace the Home Theatre/HTPC Enthusiast

By: Clift

I recently dropped Cable and went with Satellite. The following post will highlight how easy it was to do so, why the cable company lost yet another customer and why they should embrace the HT/HTPC enthusiast. I will be speaking from my specific experience and also my situation, so assume that these arguments may not be valid for everyone.

First of all, there were two main reasons behind my decision to leave cable behind: the prices have been steadily increasing every year with very little value added, and my wife and I are football fans. In the three since we had our previous cable provider our price has increased by $30, with a planned proposal to go up by another $9 this year. That’s roughly $10 per year. In that time they have added a number of channels that mean nothing to me (and I assume a majority of the people). Granted, in that time frame they took SPEED to SPEED HD and increased their HD offerings, but, to be honest, so did everyone else. What they haven’t added in that time frame is NFL Network or the Red Zone Channel. This brings me to my second reason for dropping cable. As I mentioned, we are big football fans. Where we live we get very little Miami Dolphins games – our favorite team. We also do not get Thursday Night Football games. If our cable provider added the NFL Network and the Red Zone Channel we might have thought about staying.

Anyway, this blog is about how they didn’t do the other things to ensure we would stay either, had we not been compelled or willing to go elsewhere for our programming needs (this should mean everyone else who has other reasons besides Sunday Ticket to leave Cable). Let me go over what I believe are the things our cable company could have done to keep us and why.

  • Lock In – This first one is counter-intuitive to my argument. The cable company will no doubt try to lock you in with their Bundles and the fact that, in many places, they are the only Broadband Internet provider. Add in the fact that without the Bundle, the price of internet and home phone (if that’s your thing), are outrageous. The second way they try to lock you in is by offering the DVR service that if you leave, you lose all your recordings since there is no way to take them with you. However, from an Enthusiast standpoint, we know that fact as not being the case. So how does a cable company keep someone like us? Well for one, CableCARD. I know, that makes no sense right? But look at it this way: Back in 2003 or when MCE first came out I lusted after one of those systems, but they were OEM only and very expensive. No thanks! Then you could build your own, but the cable company made sure you did not have access to HD programming. This was, in essence, trying to lock you out in order to lock you in. But that won’t work for the reason that the HTPC enthusiast has no reason or desire to compromise by downgrading to a cable company DVR. In any case, then CableCARD PCs came out and, yet again, they were OEM only. The PCs were pricey, as were the ATI OCUR Tuners. And then Windows 7 came out and the option to roll your own was added. Unfortunately, the truck roll, lack of cable company knowledge and support were not options. And then, of course, there is the limitation of Windows Media Center only if you want all the channels. And that barely scratches the surface of DRM – lock you in by locking the data. While some cable companies properly enforce the CCI flag, others (Time Warner) lock everything down. So, for my own situation, had there been an accessible way to access the HD that I pay for starting as early as 2005, I would have had so much invested in the infrastructure that a move to satellite may not have made sense at all, nor would I have wanted to. And by that I mean, a CableCARD system that has reasonable DRM (such as multiroom viewing, approved portable devices, x number of DVD copies, etc.)

  • Alternatives – So the previous argument brings me to the second one. HTPC enthusiasts are good at finding alternatives and work-arounds. When HD was not available, we turned to QAM tuners. And when those really started to be locked out of good programming we turned to the HD PVR. And really, that is the key to what has allowed me to more or less seamlessly transition from cable to satellite. The corollary to that argument is also that the cable companies have not provided alternatives to enthusiasts. Think of how many not-that-techy people you know who also hate their DVR. Maybe not that many, but think of some of those people who just accept their DVR for what it is, and how much happier they would be with say, a cable company provided TiVo. Or those people who flock to Netflix and cut the cord. Would those people (and the cable companies) not be better served if the cable company had an internet device only viewing plan at a fraction of the cost? Or an a-la-cart plan? Or, for that matter, an internet device only a-la-cart plan? Instead, the cable companies and the studios go out of their way to lock out Netflix, increase costs, set up caps, etc… anything they can do to lock in and not provide alternatives. Reminds me of the RIAA. That did not turn out as well for them.

  • Bleeding Edge Technologists – HTPC enthusiasts are definitely ones to embrace bleeding or leading edge technology. The cable companies are trying to get better at this, but their whole scheme still revolves around lock in. Granted this isn’t their entire fault, as they have licensing deals, etc. But they are also probably not trying that hard either. Think of the iPad apps hat have come out from Time Warner and Comcast/Xfinity. Those apps have a lot of potential, but still, hampered by unfair DRM requirements. When you take a portable device and make the programming accessible to it but then lock it down to viewing only within the home or on the same Broadband network the cable company provides, it really isn’t that much of an option. At that point why not just use the Netflix App or the Hulu Plus App? The cable company did not provide the right incentives for me to stay. If my cable company provided DVR (assuming it weren’t a stinking pile) was capable of streaming my recordings to any device that I could authenticate with credentials, then I may not necessarily want to cut the cord. Because, let’s face it, in the end Cable has more programming choices. The HTPC enthusiast demands this, and is willing to forego some things or deal with some less than ideal steps in order to get it-which brings me to my next argument.

  • Other Sources – Short and sweet: if you don’t provide the means to get the programming I want when I want it and where I want it, I will find someone else who can.

So in our case it came down to two things. But to be honest my whole SageTV/HTPC endeavors have been around one thing: control. I want to control how much space I allocate to my DVR. I want to control how much I spend on tangible hardware, versus service. I want to control how flexible my system is. I was willing to forego HD channels for a time to get it. I was willing to pay more upfront to get it. And I was willing to deal with the frustrations of setting the system up as well as the plug and play nature of a cable company DVR. But really, things would have been much easier if the options were there and readily available and supported. The value may have been worth the monthly rate they were charging me. I may have grown to like my system and how it was set up with the cable company because of the way everything would come together. But instead, I began to see it as a battle between me and cable. With having to implement work-arounds along the way, another thing that I learned was that I didn’t need cable. And once people realize that, then it’s only a short leap away from moving away.