How To Save Cable

I have spent the last two days in the world of cable television at the CTAM Summit in New Orleans. And even though I was asked to lead two discussions, I have to admit I am lost. As an "Internet guy," I am very used to standards and iteration being the oxygen that keeps businesses alive. On the  Web, businesses that do not innovate quickly die, regardless of their size. Constant improvements of user interfaces are the norm, not the exception.

However, if you have watched television over the past 10 years, you know that this does not hold true for your TV experience. I had a lot of preconceived notions on the lack of innovation, and while I found some accurate, what really struck me is, the lack of innovation is not for lack of want. Most of the conversations at CTAM  are about what television "could be" or "should be,"and yet there is a lot of skepticism about how it is all going to happen.

One of the main choking points for the industry is actually the hardware, meaning set-top boxes and the remote control. It is nearly impossible, as we have seen, to drastically improve the TV experience when the technology infrastructure in place simply won't allow this. Some conversations here at CTAM are about set-top boxes that are over 10 years old and still in market.

Think about that for a second. We change our phones yearly, or computers every two or three years, but the device with which most people spend the most time with media might be a DECADE old. An easy example of how hardware is holding back innovation is the lack of a keyboard. Think about the last time you tried to type a word into your cable box. Most likely you were given a cursor and used the arrows on your remote control to move to each letter. How is content supposed to become interactive with this hurdle for usage? How can there be a consistently better user experience? And, maybe most importantly for this audience, how can marketers better engage consumers without rapid innovation?

There are some huge financial challenges to getting every consumer a new set-top box, and even if everyone had a brand new model, the standards across various providers are weak at best. The real answer, in my humble opinion, is to make set-top boxes totally irrelevant.

I am more than happy to pay my cable bill for access to all of the wonderful content, but cable companies need to very quickly start improving my content consumption experience. And the only way consumers will see rapid improvement in their television interfaces is if cable companies can iterate quickly, much more like today'sWweb companies. This would mean moving away from having the software on the physical (usually outdated) box in people's home dictating the user interface, and instead allowing cable companies to test and learn very quickly on a Web-like client/server system.

The cable companies have the advantage and opportunity right now to deliver a better consumer experience and to define their role as people's preferred choice for content consumption, as well as redefine how advertising fits within the world's largest medium. But in order to seize the opportunity, cable companies are going to need to start thinking about how they can change faster -- and provide the most positive consumer experience  possible.

Tags: commentary, tv
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5 comments about "How To Save Cable".
  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360 , October 19, 2010 at 4:42 p.m.

    In the cable industry, there is an old story that some call "The GI Mistake", named for the time when the cable TV industry put too much trust in General Instrument.

    Since then, MSOs have looked at cable TV settop boxes quite differently. I myself worked on a cable project in the Bay area that included Pacific Gas & Electric and Microsoft on delivering real-time energy pricing to the home, and the lumbering old DCT-1000 - almost 20 years old now - was well up to the task of meeting our specifications.

    The reality is that many of the wonderful people you met at CTAM are probably not involved in DOCSIS, OpenCable, or even TV Anywhere. If they were, they could tell you that the plumbing you describe has migrated: up to the central office, into the display devices, and even into local nodes. It has taken Comcast almost 10 years to catch up with the capabilities of the network: only last year did they secure the rights to use digital content in places other than the set-top box.

    There are some really important issues to consider going forward: while others ask why they should be required to pay for channels they will never consume, I believe that the Basic Plus business model is misunderstood and undervalued. I respond by asking why you should pay $9.95 for Hulu.com or Netflix, when you are not likely to use 96% of their offerings.

    In my opinion, access to popular, first-run television entertainment is the most positive consumer experience possible.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , October 19, 2010 at 5:17 p.m.

    Who is we? The 60% of income is $50,000 Gross and much less, $1200+ per year out of Net income for TV, online and phone is more than bearable. What are just the transportation costs for a couple of kids to school and you to work? When the present tools work perfectly well and fills the necessary gaps, then new boxes are going be slower going. Lower consumer costs - not more adding more services nickeling and diming - are major factors to save cable.

  3. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston , October 19, 2010 at 9:42 p.m.

    If TiVo can release a new remote control that has a slide-out keyboard, then cable should, too. It's not that high-tech.

    Better yet, get rid of the remote altogether and let people use their ever-present cellphone to communicate with the STB.

  4. Steve Bucholz from SABA solutions , October 20, 2010 at 4:16 p.m.

    Nice observation on the slow speed of innovation. What you may not be aware of is this condition has existed for a decade and these conversations about how to overcome the limitations of the box, input device and program guide have been occurring in similar way for at least the same amount of time. Today's older consumer would prefer to get programming on a bigger screen but it is evident millions are fine with using alternative devices that are feature rich, easier to use and deliver a more custonized experience quickly.

  5. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2013ac.com network , October 20, 2010 at 6:05 p.m.

    If I want to make a phone call, I only have to own one device. If I want to get online, again, I only need one device. Same deal with a long list of tasks; ... except for what should be the simple task of watching what I want, when I want, on TV.

    For that, I have to use three remotes, controlling three devices (TV, DVD and DVR, the DVD being used for those programs I want to save and play on other TVs). Please don't suggest a universal remote; I'm an old guy.

    The way it is now, I can hand someone my car keys, cellphone or laptop and they'll be able to operate them without a half-hour of instructions from me. Try that with the average TV control setup, which is, I suspect, like snowflakes; ... no two are alike on the entire planet.

    In short, I'm in agreement with the other posters here who are suggesting that a single keyboard controller would bring TV viewing into the same ease of interface zone that we enjoy with cellphones, computers, etc.