From 1950 to 1980, watching TV was super easy: All you had to do was remember what time your favorite shows would be on and then turn a knob to tune in. So simple. The process required less than 0.0000001% of your brain power, freeing America to do some pretty cool things during that time span, like walk on the moon, march for civil rights, and impeach a president.
Then came a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sought to annihilate the elegant simplicity of TV watching: The Cable Box. Sure it came with dozens of enticing channels, but it rendered useless the TV’s own dial and it made hooking up a VCR a complicated mess. It also made life hell for every 10 year old boy who was forced to become their home’s I.T. guy.
Fortunately, electronics manufacturers saw a need for simplicity, and they started sticking cable tuners right into a multitude of devices. The result: cable-ready TVs & VCRs that relegated cable boxes only to those who desperately needed to buy pay-per-view programs (i.e. boxing & porn) or unscramble premium channels (i.e. less interesting boxing and simulated porn). Thus the 1990’s became the golden age of cable: 60 to 70 additional channels, no special box required. With that hassle eliminated, America saw it’s greatest decade of prosperity since the end of World War II. We even had time to impeach another president.
But then the cable companies fought back. “Sure you can get up to 70 channels with no box,” they said in a dark alley behind the middle school, “but that’s BASIC cable. Wouldn’t you like something better? Something DIGITAL?” Ooh, digital cable. Hundreds of channels! Better sound and video quality! The ability to watch movies on demand! “Sounds great!” we shouted, “but what’s the catch?”
“That’s the best part,” they responded. “There isn’t one!”
Ah, but there was.
The catch was the return of the cable box, and this time the cable companies were ready to fend off any attempt to bypass them. Even though TVs were now digital, Tivo’s were digital, and, heck, even VCRs had gone digital (after they changed their name to “DVD players”), the cable companies made sure none of those devices could decode their digital signals. Every home had to have a digital cable box, because that’s the only way cable companies could lure you into buying additional services (or so they figured). Even when the government finally forced cable companies to play nicely with other devices, the best they could cough up were “cable cards” that they still controlled, which they made as useless as they legally could while advertising them as little as possible (if at all).
So thanks to the return of the unavoidable cable box, as well as the emergence of HDTV, watching TV in the 2000’s took a big leap backwards in terms of simplicity. Wires everywhere. Multiple remotes. Should the TV be on AUX 1, or video input 2? What in the world is an IR blaster? And what’s with these terrible, unintuitive menus that keep freezing up? Should I put the gun to my forehead, or into my mouth?
All of sudden, the once simple act of watching TV now required up to 95% of your brain power (rough estimate). The result: America was so distracted by the frustration of just turning on the TV, they didn’t even pay attention to what was actually on it. Reality shows became a hit. George W. Bush got re-elected. The economy collapsed. The Cable Box nearly destroyed our nation.
So people are now getting rid of them. Again. Finally. Americans have started turning to Hulu, Netflix, Media Center PCs, iTunes, etc. to get their TV fix.
Are those things easier to use than a cable box? Actually, no. But their existence allows consumers the flexibility to watch TV shows and movies in whatever way they feel most comfortable. All of sudden, TV isn’t just unlocked from the cable box, but it’s becoming unglued from the TV itself.
Which is why I began this summer with a personal experiment to cut the cable cord and craft a better TV watching experience with other technologies. It’s not because I hate the cable companies per se — hey, they dug up every sidewalk in America to lay their eponymous cables, a massive undertaking that makes satellite companies look lazy in comparrison. They did some pretty heavy lifting, so I have no problem paying them for internet service, or even basic cable service. But the software on my digital cable box hasn’t been updated in 7 years, it needlessly complicates my home theater set-up, and it doesn’t play nicely with any other devices, not even other cable boxes in the same house. It’s a piece of technology that should’ve stayed dead in the 80’s. That is why I want to kill the cable box for good.
Tune in next week for the results of my experiment…