First Person: A Divergent Convergence

Feb 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Nothing works. I have six remotes, four set-top boxes, one high-definition TV and a wireless network sending connectivity to every corner of my home.

And nothing works.

After three months, more than $1,200 and several phone calls to various tech support desks, I’m still watching “The Office” on iTunes on my laptop because neither my cable digital video recorder nor my TiVo work properly.

As the resident tech geek for TelevisionWeek, I decided to outfit my home for convergence. I had grand visions of a content nirvana. All devices would work in harmony, sending my mainstream favorites, such as HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and NBC’s “My Name Is Earl,” along with nichier treats such as skateboarding videos and 10-minute fitness workouts, to every nook and cranny of my house.

My home would be bathed in long-tail and short-tail content. Convergence is supposed to put the consumer in control, after all.

But as it turns out, my devices control me-despite the fact I have a higher tolerance for technical shenanigans than the average person.

I am willing to wade through three months of botched hookups, bad boxes and burgeoning wires because I cover new technology. But I suspect the average consumer doesn’t have as much patience.

If convergence is going to work, we’ll need a cottage industry of supercharged new media experts who can quickly tame the devices into submission. Consider this journey.

My vision for a utopian television viewing experience came to me after my Comcast DVR-a Motorola DCT-6412C-began suffering from seizures late last year. It would freeze up minutes into a recorded program, sputtering and stopping and pixelating like a 1997 dial-up Internet connection and then zing me around the dial to different channels.

It was, quite simply, possessed.

It was my third DVR, too, since previous incarnations had also suffered such demonic blips and burps when I tried to watch TV, forcing me back to the old-school method of watching live.

That meant it was time for TiVo.

But I wouldn’t stop there. If I was going to geek out, I had to go all the way. In November I procured a TiVo, an Akimbo-which is both a set-top box and a video-on-demand service delivering niche and network programming-and a Sling box, a small, slim box that lets users watch their TV programming, including recorded content, on a computer anywhere in the world.

I even envisioned installing everything myself. I opened the TiVo, spread the instructions out on the living room floor and then I remembered: I’m a writer, not an engineer.

So I called my computer guy to set it up. He failed to show.

I asked techie Bay Area sources for names of convergence dudes, folks who could wire and wirelessly solder everything together. I even asked executives from Akimbo and TiVo if they could recommend someone savvy enough to connect everything. I emphasized I wasn’t looking for a freebie install.

They promised to help, but I received no return phone calls.

Finally, in January my husband located a home theater installer named Roger who promised he could set it all up, even though he had never heard of an Akimbo.

Roger showed up, so I reckoned that was an auspicious start.

When he left eight hours later, my TV setup looked like the carcass of a RadioShack stock room.

He returned for six hours the next day with more wires and ethernet cable. His only achievement was to get everything back to neutral. When he left, the Comcast DVR was working but not the Akimbo, Sling or TiVo.

I had wanted to approach my project like a civilian, but regular-people channels weren’t working.

So I resorted to my trump card and called the public relations spokesperson for Comcast in the Bay Area, who immediately dispatched a “special ops” technician, a sort of Delta Force specialist among cable installers.

Tim became the hero of the day when he succeeded in installing my TiVo and Akimbo and swapping out my DVR for a new one.

Now there was only one device left: The Sling box. Tim said it needed what’s known as a “Wi-Fi jumper” to connect to the wireless Internet in my house. Sling, a device based on the very premise of freeing content from the shackles of the boxes it resides in so users can watch TV anywhere in the world, is not a wireless device.

I got the jumper and the Sling was up and running.

For one glorious day in February everything worked.

The next day, the devices began taking over. I clicked on my TiVo to watch “My Name Is Earl” and “The Office.” But TiVo couldn’t think for itself anymore. It had become enslaved to the DVR and could record only the channel to which the DVR was tuned.

I reasoned the DVR was responsible for this hostile takeover, so I fought back by unplugging it for a minute.

My gambit failed. TiVo still wouldn’t work.

I called Comcast again. My instinct was right, but my tactics were wrong, Tim told me.

I needed to pull the plug on TiVo momentarily.

I restarted TiVo, and now it’s working again.

But you know what? It’s not fun anymore.

Every time I turn on the TV, I look at a crib sheet with a chart that matches the remote control to the video input and audio receiver input to make sure everything is tuned for the device I want to use.

And no matter how many times I switch out the DVR for a new one, it always devolves back to chaos. Just last week my husband toggled through five different prerecorded movies because each one coughed, sputtered and froze within five minutes.

The Comcast repairman had warned that some TV sets simply give off too much voltage, essentially burning out the DVR.

The only solution is to buy a new TV, he said.

Then there’s the Akimbo, which is slow and sluggish to navigate. Some of the content comes with an additional price tag beyond the monthly or lifetime subscription fee.

Finally, the TiVo doesn’t record HD content, though TiVo says it will have a stand-alone HD box on the market soon.

For now, I’ve found a way to get back at the boxes. I don’t use them unless I absolutely have to. If I can’t watch a program on-demand, on DVD or on iTunes, I rarely watch it.

In fact, just to spite my television and the jeering red lights of its tentacled boxes, I decided to show it who was boss.

I downloaded the lost episode of “The Office” via iTunes, made some popcorn and curled up on the couch with my laptop.

It worked perfectly.