Sunday, June 1, 2008

The ongoing battle between cable TV and TiVo


By David Gewirtz

Are cable television companies purposely or inadvertently sabotaging their customers' TiVo installations? This question came to mind a few weeks ago when our local cable company performed an "upgrade" that virtually disabled my family's TiVo personal video recorders.

In this article, I'll explore that question as the basis for a case study on industry flexibility. I'll also look at specific solutions for the problems we encountered, and possible solutions for the industry as a whole.

A personal video recorder (or PVR), also known as a digital video recorder (or DVR), is a device that records live television for later viewing. TiVo is one of the most popular brands of DVR and is a product I've used at home since the first model came out back in 1999.

"We could no longer be assured of getting each new episode of our favorite shows."

For me, personally, a DVR is an indispensable device. I like television, but because of my work schedule and active lifestyle, I'm never able to watch my favorite shows when they're broadcast. Even before DVRs came out, I used all sorts of jury-rigged methods to time-shift my TV watching, including some elaborate tape swapping of those old VHS tapes and Rube Goldberg-like triggering of ancient VCRs. TiVo made things a lot more pleasant.

Denise and I have a fleet of TiVo devices. About two weeks ago, her TiVo (yes, we have "his" and "hers" TiVos) stopped recording her favorite programs properly. A week later, my TiVo evidenced the same symptoms.

Most TiVo devices work in concert with the cable set-top box provided by your friendly neighborhood cable company. If you want to record Ninja Warrior at 9pm on channel 150, the TiVo box sends a signal to an IR "repeater", which simulates the cable box's remote control, and causes the cable box to change to channel 150.

This is a relatively crude solution, but it's worked reasonably well for most TiVo owners for almost a decade. That is, until about two weeks ago, when our local cable company apparently found a way to prevent IR repeaters from working reliably.

Here in Central Florida, the local cable network suddenly installed a new operating system update to their cable boxes which includes a feature called Digital Navigator. After years of working perfectly, our TiVo boxes suddenly were unable to change channels correctly at the top of the hour.