The Clicker: TiVo and cable -- they're like BFF, right?

Stephen Speicher
S. Speicher|09.07.06

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Stephen Speicher
September 7, 2006 6:43 PM
The Clicker: TiVo and cable -- they're like BFF, right?
Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, an opinion column on entertainment and technology:

Every now and again an advertisement is so perfect that one must draw attention to it. Sometimes it's the humor that sits up and demands to be seen. Sometimes it's the spot-on commentary. Sometimes it's the unique form. And, as is the case with TiVo's latest advert, sometimes it's all three. Even disregarding the delicious irony of TiVo -- a company that made its mark by skipping commercials -- reaching out with advertisements of its own, its newest ad is a doozy.

In a recent Television Week, TiVo placed an ad for its latest creation, a CableCARD compliant TiVo. The ad is brilliant on so many levels. First and foremost -- it's completely unclear to whom it's actually targeted. While the ad (taking the form of an open letter) is addressed to "Cable Friends," one must seriously question both its true audience and how friendly they really are. After all, no one really expects the boys in cable to read this letter and suddenly say, "Wait a minute; that battle we've been fighting to keep those TiVo guys out -- forget it!" It's just not going to happen.

Its target aside, the ad's true genius reveals itself in the dizzying levels of disingenuousness it is able to achieve. There is nary a thought or concept that reads true and sincere. Let's take a look at some of the points, shall we?

"It seems we *forgot* to make this box work with satellite service. Oops." What a fabulous sentence that is. The implication is, of course, that cable will be ahead of satellite. Of course that disregards two key facts. First, satellite is working hard to evict TiVo from their airwaves; DirecTV is readying to do a large scale release of their own homebrewed box and few expect the TiVo / DirecTV relationship to be renewed again. Second, and more importantly, TiVo has already produced an HD satellite box. So apparently by "forgot" TiVo actually means "we've already done an HD satellite box with our fantastic service for them. It's your turn to get sloppy seconds because, frankly, they don't want us there anymore and they don't have the equivalent of CableCARD that forces them to allow us." Perhaps the good folks at TiVo need to buy a dictionary because, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, "I do not think that word means what they think it means."

TiVo goes on to tout their ability to deliver "the best of both worlds with VOD capabilities through their current cable box and all the great benefits of TiVo in HD." Does TiVo actually think that the majority of the people will be buying their $800 box and then will continue to pay the ludicrous cable rent box fees? Did they miss the point of their own product? Don't they understand that people buy CableCARD gear with the explicit purpose of retiring that 8-bit graphics monstrosity the cable companies push on us? Oh, they understand! It's just another subtle jab at cable's failure to deliver a 2-way spec for them to build upon.

At this point one might get the impression that I'm being hard on TiVo here. Let me dispel that notion right now. I wholeheartedly agree with TiVo's campaign. Their response is simply a reaction to the cable industry's miserable "support" of the CableCARD initiative. The cable industry has done everything in its power to thwart an open platform, from the often-required "service install" of the CableCARD to the recent disinformation scares that certain cable companies would refuse to issue CableCARDs to TiVo users. Furthermore, many (myself included) have been told by cable representatives that "these CableCARD things don't work. You don't want one."

The contentious relationship between TiVo and cable is nothing new. In January of 2005, TiVo Vice President Matthew P. Zinn had some harsh words for the cable companies and their current implementation of OpenCable, saying, "It is abundantly clear that cable's 'support' of CableCARD fundamentally conflicts with cable's own market imperatives. There is little doubt that cable would support [an OCAP implementation]. Such products, however, do not provide consumers with a competitive alternative to operator-supplied integrated set-top boxes. All they do is provide consumers the choice between leasing a box from cable or buying essentially the very same box from Samsung or LG Electronics. In other words," Zinn continues, "you can lease a Honda Accord from your cable operator or you can buy a Honda Accord."

Zinn, like the rest of the industry, foresaw what's happening now. At best cable companies are acting on a "let's do the absolute minimum" philosophy. At worst they are being disruptive and downright dishonest.

Make no mistake about it -- TiVo and cable are not friends. Cable views TiVo as not only a threat to its large rental revenue but also as endangering the billions of dollars they expect to come from add on services (PPV, music and DVD purchases, etc.). There is no way that they're going to open their arms and help the process. The best we can hope for is that shame, public perception, and the FCC will keep them close to honest. In the meantime, it's fun to watch them both pretend they're like BFF. It's a little like watching the Simple Life -- one, drunk with power, and the other doing its best to hold on to the spotlight.

[Image via PVRBlog]

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