Comcast Confusion

Well, maybe this transition thing isn’t as cleared up as I thought.

An update to the earlier article about Comcast’s transition to (nearly) all-digital broadcasting went online, and it seems to be contradicting what I was told earlier. Here’s the relevant part of the new article (added emphasis is mine):

Comcast is switching channels higher than 29 to digital format and requiring all televisions to have some sort of cable box to receive those channels. For “expanded basic” customers who don’t have cable boxes, the company will provide a free box. It also will provide two free adapters that expanded and digital customers can use on additional TVs that don’t have a box. Limited basic customers — who only receive channels 2 to 29 — won’t be affected.

This seems to agree with my initial interpretation from the first article: that there will be no change in service for Limited Basic subscribers, and it’s only Expanded Basic customers that will be receiving cable boxes and/or DTAs. Looking again at the tweets I received yesterday from Shauna, I wonder about the wording of this one (again with added emphasis):

@djwudi Hi,Re:Comcast—You will not lose channels, you will actually get more. If you have basic cable, we’ll give you very small conver … #

The problem I’m seeing, and the potential breakdown in communication, is that “basic cable” could be interpreted two ways: Limited Basic (the package I have), and Expanded Basic (the package planned to get the new boxes).

Under Comcast’s current channel line up (which I can’t link to, given the joys of Comcast’s website), Limited Basic customers get channels 2-29 as stated in the article, but they also get 75-79, 99, a run of HD channels (which you would need a $6.50/mo HD box to receive: 104-107, 109-111 and 113), and four high-digit channels (115-117 and 119) that I’ve never seen, so I don’t know if they’re HD or if my TV just doesn’t pick them up. Based on the information provided so far, I can’t find a situation where Limited Basic subscribers “won’t be affected,” as stated in both articles from the Seattle Times. There appear to be two possible situations:

  1. As implied in my conversations on Twitter, Limited Basic customers will receive DTA boxes that will allow them to receive the current channel lineup, or

  2. After the transition, Limited Basic service will actually be reduced to only channels 2-29.

I’m going to continue poking at Comcast to see if I can get a solid answer to this, but at the moment it’s a little confusing.


As long as I’m babbling about the boob tube and whining about cable pricing, I might as well toss out my pie-in-the-sky, never-going-to-happen concept for what I want as an option. I actually have two possible concepts, both of which seem like they’d be very doable in the present or soon-to-exist all-digital world.

  1. A-la-carte: Get rid of these ridiculous “bundles” that give me seven channels that I’d pay attention to and sixty-three that I’d ignore. Show me your lineup and let me put my own bundle together. Give me what I want to watch (local channels, Discovery, History, Sci-Fi, etc.), and don’t force me to pay for crap that I’ll never pay attention to (the six thousand variations of QVC, foreign language channels, etc.). I don’t have any issues with paying for content that I’m interested in, but I do have issues with paying for content that I’m not interested in.

  2. TV as a Utility: Open the pipe and give me access to everything, but track what I watch and bill me for what I watch. Watching a few shows here and there is a small bill, feeling lonely and desperate for company and leaving the TV on 24/7 is a larger bill. Bill me for what I actually consume, not what you hope I might try to consume in my most desperate, anti-social, couch-potato moments of depression.

I don’t expect that either of these options are likely to appear anytime soon, if ever, but they make a lot more sense to me than any of the current pay-TV models do.

Maybe @comcastcares after all!

Back when Prairie and I moved into this apartment, we ended up with Comcast cable. I wasn’t super excited about this, given all the horror stories about Comcast’s customer service floating about the ‘net, but we didn’t have much choice. Over the air TV reception in the Kent valley is nearly nonexistent, and we’re on the wrong side of the building to get a DirecTV connection.

So we signed up for Comcast’s most basic, entry level, all analog “Limited Basic” package. $18 a month gets us local channels plus a few extras, and our favorite surprise in the package was Channel 99 CBUT, Vancouver BC’s CBC affiliate. We watched almost nothing but CBUT during the Olympics, and still tune in from time to time, having become fans of Canadian TV, and especially their sports (during the Olympics, they actually recognized that there were other countries competing) and news coverage (their coverage of the US Elections was an interesting break from the US media). In any case, our cable package isn’t fancy — we don’t even have a cable box, but just run the coax straight from the wall to the TV — but it’s enough for us.

Yesterday I stumbled across an article about Comcast Seattle’s upcoming digital transition. While separate from the broadcast digital transition, it’s the same basic idea (replacing high-bandwidth analog with low-bandwidth digital) and, through somewhat unfortunate timing, will be occurring at about the same time as the broadcast switch. Since our package is analog, I was understandably curious about what to expect.

According to the article, “Customers with limited basic — just channels 2-29 — won’t be affected at all. Those channels will stay analog, so those customers can still just plug their cable into a new or old TV.” So far so good…but what about those channels above 29 that we’re currently receiving? Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of them, but there are a few, including those friendly Canadians. Are we going to lose them? And if so, would we really have to nearly triple our monthly cable bill in order to keep them around (since the lowest digital package that Comcast offers is a ridiculous $56/month)?

I figured I’d see if I could get a quick answer. I’d been following the comcastcares Twitter account for some time, after stumbling across some of the impressive stories about their customer service approach, and fired off a couple brief tweets.

It’s hard for me to believe that @comcastcares when their TV tiers jump from $18/mo (bare bones analog) to $56/mo (entry level digital). #

@comcastcares BTW, that isn’t a rant at you or the stellar customer service you do through Twitter. I just think TV pricing is horrendous. #

@comcastcares When you go all digital in Seattle will I lose the channels above 30 I currently get with Limited Basic? #

A little bit later that evening, he came back to me with a preliminary answer:

@djwudi I have to get the specifics but as I understand it all channels above 30 will not be available. I will find out more tomorrow #

Not bad — within just a couple hours, I had a response. Admittedly, not an encouraging response, but a response. Then, this morning, I woke up to find that within an hour after he’d responded, he’d referred me to a local Comcast representative, who told me the following:

@djwudi Hi,Re:Comcast–You will not lose channels, you will actually get more. If you have basic cable, we’ll give you very small conver … #

@djwudi Oops, meant to add that Comcast will give you (free of charge) a small box that will allow you to get additional channels. #

I’m guessing that the “small box” that Shauna is referring to here is the “DTA” also being provided to multiple-TV basic digital subscribers.

…Comcast decided to also start providing a secondary type of cable box to homes with multiple TVs.

Called a “DTA,” this device is about the size of a box of frozen spinach and can be mounted behind a TV. It allows the TV to display channels 30 and above without a full cable box. They do not record shows, display program guides or enable rentals like a full box.

So, if I’m understanding this correctly, sometime around the February switchover, Comcast should be providing us with one (or hopefully two, as we have two TVs) DTAs that will allow us to keep our Limited Basic bare-bones service, while still getting the channels we’ve been receiving…and possibly a few more. Not bad.

Also of note (to me, at least) is just how effective and easy this was. I’m used to “customer service” that actually prevents me from even making an attempt (calling Quest, for instance, involves navigating through a phone tree at a call center that operates on East Coast time, even though their customer service pages simply list hours of operation with no time zone listed, so us West Coasters don’t realize that closing at 6pm really means closing at 3pm when we’re still at work until we call and get nowhere). Being able to toss off a short, quick note and get a useful and polite response within a few hours is wonderful.

Comcast the corporate behemoth may very well have its fair share of issues (and then some — I must be honest, I’m not at all convinced that I’d trust my internet connection to them), but — at least on the Twitter level — Comcast’s employees are doing some very nice work.

Somewhat coincidentally, this morning Frank (the man behind comcastcares) posted on his personal weblog about his personal customer service philosophy, and it’s clear just why he does such good work. If only more people and companies would approach their customers with this kind of mindset.

I have seen a lot of press and blog posts about the efforts of my team on the web. I have always been surprised by this because I do not see what I am doing as that special. If you review how I defined Customer Service, you will notice that I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to talk with Customers. I also believe that it is important to be where they are when possible. The internet provides that ability.

To me if I hear someone talking about the company I work for I always offer to help. I have done this at parties, on the street, and one time in a Verizon Wireless store. I never have done it in a negative way. I would just say let me assist, here is my business card. My business card has my email, office phone and my cell phone clearly listed on it. It is very simple. “Let me know if I can help.”

So now we look at engagement in social media spaces. In many cases I write simple messages, “Can I help” or “Thank you.” I do not use the time to sell which many marketers have tried to do. Yet these simple acknowledgements have led to many sales. The key is to be genuine and willing to sincerely listen and help. I never press, I simply provide the opportunity for someone to obtain assistance. For me if I saw someone who wanted or needed help anywhere, I would be happy to assist. As many of you know I have been known to do this many hours of the day, but that is because if I see someone that needs help, and if I can, I will.

I didn’t even have a major issue, but between comcastcares and ShaunaCausey, it was a good experience. Thanks, you two!

Now we’ll just wait and see what happens come February. ;)

To Blu or Not To Blu?

For Christmas this year, Prairie and I have decided to treat ourselves and upgrade our TV set from the one I bought when I moved to Seattle seven and a half years ago (!!!!!). It’s a nice enough TV (a Sony Wega 27-inch), but it’s huge, heavy, and while still in good shape, it’s old tech. The original plan was to wait until it died, but between Sony’s generally good longevity (my parents had a little Sony 13″ TV that went for almost thirty years) and my geeky techno-lust, Prairie surprised me by suggesting that we go ahead and upgrade to the new hotness.

So, the hunt is in progress. At this point, I’m pretty much decided on a 32″ Samsung, most likely either the LN32A550 or the LN32A650, depending on where prices land in the weeks between Black Friday and Christmas.

Of course, with the jump to an HDTV comes the jump to HD programming. Day-to-day entertainment will come courtesy of Comcast — we’re already getting our cable through them, so we’ll just upgrade that to the minimum possible digital/HD package. For movies, though, we’re doing a bit of back-and-forth (though, to be honest, Prairie’s on the “back” — that is, staying with what we have — while I’m on the “forth” side of the discussion).

My movie-loving, technology-geeking little heart tends to go all a-pitter-pat at upgrading to Blu-Ray. I jumped onto the DVD bandwagon as soon as it dropped into the realm of affordability, loved the jump in video and audio quality from my old VHS tapes, and have been looking forward to the next step forward.

Prairie, however, doesn’t really see what all the fuss is about, and her approach is one that I’m having an amusingly tough time arguing against: if we can see the show and enjoy the story, than what’s the big deal? She never saw a big difference between VHS and DVD, doesn’t really care about surround sound (a moot point at the moment, as living in an apartment building means that standard stereo at reasonable levels is far more realistic than full surround and gut-thumping subwoofers — something we really wish our neighbors would realize…), and just doesn’t see the point in adding another piece of electronics and another remote to the stack we have to keep track of already.

I’ve gotta admit, it’s hard to really say, “But…it’s better!” without realizing just how foolish that sounds.

Not that I don’t try. I’d have my geek card revoked if I didn’t at least try.

(And on a not-unrelated-at-all side note, I think it works wonderfully that our respective geek levels generally balance out into reasonable end results. I don’t know how couples made of dual übergeeks can manage!)

In any case, I think part of the conversation is simply the fact that we don’t really know how much of a change we’re going to see when we upgrade. Sure, I’ve looked at all the numbers and can see the mathmatical difference between SD 640×480 and FullHD 1920×1080, I’ve done simple little experiments looking at resolution increases, and I’ve been working with digital photography long enough that I can get a feel for the difference betweeen a .3 megapixel image and a 2 megapixel image (the approximate difference between SD and FullHD). But running numbers and reading webpages is no substitute for actually seeing what happens when we plug it all together.

So I tried a little experiment today, and tossed out two questions on Twitter…

You who’ve moved from “old school” TV to a new HDTV (pref. w/some form of HD feed): is it really that big of a difference? Turned up to 11?

Same question, part 2: Along the same lines, how about the DVD to Blu-Ray transition? Again, is it that much visibly better?

…and got the following responses:

  • axsdeny: DVD to Blu-Ray: yes. If you have even a 720p TV you can tell the difference. It’s beautiful.
  • lyracole: i don’t notice the difference between my standard and hd, but sir does. also, fuck blu-ray.
  • stoppableforce: w/r/t the difference between SDTV and HDTV: YES. YES. DEAR GOD YES. The difference in clarity is A-FUCKIN’-MAZING.
  • stoppableforce: w/r/t the DVD-to-Blu-Ray thing: Not so much. We’ve got both, Blu-Ray looks slightly better, not enough to make me buy a PS3 yet.
  • mellzah: I hate to admit it, but blu-ray looks great. DVDs don’t look sharp on my TV– non-HD projection 50ish inch–but Blu-Ray movies do!
  • skyler: Huge difference. I attribute most of it to HDMI, actually. Clearer interference free signal. Xbox 360 + 1080p is great w/DVDs.
  • antifuse: short answer? Yes. Longer answer? Depends what you watch. Plain DVDs upscaled by Blu ray look fab, and many shows look great too.
  • wnalyd: Finally answering your HDTV question: Heck yeah there’s a difference bwtn HD + SD. Turned up to 17. Wouldn’t go back.

So the final consensus (admittedly, since I used Twitter, drawing from a very weighted sample of at least somewhat geeky-type people), while not clear-cut across the board, seems to be that yes, there is a difference, ranging from “better” to “A-FUCKIN’-MAZING”. We’ll just have to wait and see where we fall along that spectrum with the equipment we have (we’ll have the HDTV and HD cable from Comcast for the pretty pretty pixels, and a non-upconverting DVD/VHS combo deck for movies), and maybe see if I can find anyone with a Blu-Ray player for us to borrow for a night to help us decide if we want to add that piece, too (of course, if the Blu-Ray players don’t drop into affordability, that’ll make the whole point moot as well).

Did I miss anything?

Pushing Daisies: Candy-Coated Family Friendly?

Pushing Daisies is one of my favorite shows on TV right now — wonderfully quirky, and often feels to me like what might have happened if Edward Scissorhands-era Tim Burton had gone into television. The Disney Weblog has been doing weekly wrapups, and something about this week’s review got under my skin a little bit.

(Since what follows hinges upon the final shot of the show, I’ll pop it under the cut to avoid spoilers…)

Read more

Obama, Meet Bartlet

There’s a New York Times column where West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin writes a bit of political ‘fanfic’: what advice could Barack Obama get from former president Jed Bartlet?

OBAMA They pivoted off the argument that I was inexperienced to the criticism that I’m — wait for it — the Messiah, who, by the way, was a community organizer. When I speak I try to lead with inspiration and aptitude. How is that a liability?

BARTLET Because the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional. If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.

I love that line: “The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.” So sadly true.

Then, leading into a rant more than worthy of some of the best West Wing episodes…

OBAMA The problem is we can’t appear angry. Bush called us the angry left. Did you see anyone in Denver who was angry?

BARTLET Well … let me think. …We went to war against the wrong country, Osama bin Laden just celebrated his seventh anniversary of not being caught either dead or alive, my family’s less safe than it was eight years ago, we’ve lost trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, thousands of lives and we lost an entire city due to bad weather. So, you know … I’m a little angry.

OBAMA What would you do?

BARTLET GET ANGRIER! Call them liars, because that’s what they are. Sarah Palin didn’t say “thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere. She just said “Thanks.” You were raised by a single mother on food stamps — where does a guy with eight houses who was legacied into Annapolis get off calling you an elitist? And by the way, if you do nothing else, take that word back. Elite is a good word, it means well above average. I’d ask them what their problem is with excellence. While you’re at it, I want the word “patriot” back. McCain can say that the transcendent issue of our time is the spread of Islamic fanaticism or he can choose a running mate who doesn’t know the Bush doctrine from the Monroe Doctrine, but he can’t do both at the same time and call it patriotic. They have to lie — the truth isn’t their friend right now. Get angry. Mock them mercilessly; they’ve earned it. McCain decried agents of intolerance, then chose a running mate who had to ask if she was allowed to ban books from a public library. It’s not bad enough she thinks the planet Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago complete with a man, a woman and a talking snake, she wants schools to teach the rest of our kids to deny geology, anthropology, archaeology and common sense too? It’s not bad enough she’s forcing her own daughter into a loveless marriage to a teenage hood, she wants the rest of us to guide our daughters in that direction too? It’s not enough that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose, it should be the law of the land that she has to carry and deliver her rapist’s baby too? I don’t know whether or not Governor Palin has the tenacity of a pit bull, but I know for sure she’s got the qualifications of one. And you’re worried about seeming angry? You could eat their lunch, make them cry and tell their mamas about it and God himself would call it restrained. There are times when you are simply required to be impolite. There are times when condescension is called for!

Oh, but how I miss Jed Bartlet. What I wouldn’t give to see Martin Sheen step back into character and let that little rant fly.

(via MeFi)

This is Journalism?

I’ll freely admit that, while geeky, I’m not one who will stand in line for hours for an item I can get faster and easier if I wait a few days. I’m less concerned with “firsties” than with my own convenience.

That said — I love the fact that the customer in this video actually calls the reporter on his idiotic “reporting.” I wish more people would do this — perhaps we’d actually get a bit more news in the news, instead of mindless fluff.

Probably not. But perhaps.

Lost Finale Show-to-Commercial Ratio

Watching the season finale of Lost last night was an exercise in frustration — not because of the show itself (we enjoy the frustration that comes from the many twists, turns, and unanswered questions of the show), but from the horrendous number of and length of commercial breaks. It felt like we were getting about a 1:1 ratio of show to commercial, so starting a little before the halfway point of the two-hour program, I started jotting down when we’d switch from show to commercial.

The end result: Over the final 72 minutes of the show…

  • there were 48 minutes of show and 24 minutes of commercial, for a 2:1 show-to-commercial ratio (It was nice to know that it wasn’t actually 1:1, though it really did feel like it),
  • there were 6 commercial breaks, averaging 4 minutes each,
    • most commercial breaks were four minutes,
    • the shortest commercial break was three minutes,
    • the longest commercial break was five minuets,
  • there were 6 show segments, averaging 8 minutes each,
    • the shortest show segment was five minutes,
    • the longest show segment was eleven minutes.

Okay, so it’s not the most impressive set of statistics out there, but the continuing drive for more commercial time and less show time is ever more aggravating, and one of the big reasons I didn’t watch TV for close to a decade (and for most shows, still prefer to just wait ’til they come out on DVD). That 2:1 ratio means that every hour of TV will actually have only 40 minutes of show.

For quick (and admittedly loose) comparisons with other well-known historical popular TV series, IMDB lists original Star Trek as 47 minutes, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager as 45 minutes, and Enterprise as 42 minutes. From the 60’s to the 80’s shows only lost about two minutes to advertisers, we held steady through the 90’s, but by 2001 had lost another three minutes, and in 2008 we’ve lost another two. Not only are we getting noticeably less show and more advertising, but the rate at which advertising takes over show time is increasing. Ick.

And then people wonder are surprised that I don’t watch more TV than I do? Heck, I’m often surprised that I watch as much as I do!

Dig  al T  evis on

A few weeks ago, Prairie and I got our TV Converter Box Coupons from the government, so that we could happily continue to pump propaganda into our brains watch our favorite shows after the analog stations are turned off in February. I wandered down to the seventh circle of Hell Best Buy and picked up two of the converter boxes (the Insignia NS-DXA1). Rather than hooking both up right off the bat (tempting as that was, since I was a geek with new toys), I just hooked up the larger living room TV. This made sense, as it’s the one that has all the other fancy gadgets on it and requires me being home to successfully juggle five remotes — Prairie just sticks to the little one in our bedroom that only uses two remotes.

After a few weeks of using it…well, much as I like the idea of digital TV, the reality — at least as far as over-the-air broadcast goes — is definitely a bit of a mixed bag.

The box itself is fairly nice: simple to set up and use, with only a few minor caveats. For some reason, in addition to the blue ‘on’ light that’s quite standard for electronics, this also has a bright red ‘off’ light that looks oddly like there’s a Cylon staring at you when you’re not watching TV (incidentally, this is another reason we’ve not hooked one up in the bedroom yet). The on-screen guide doesn’t always seem to be accurate, though that may be the fault of the local broadcasters. Aside from that, I’m quite happy with it — the image quality is nice, and a noticeable step up from analog broadcasts, and the audio, while limited to standard 2-channel stereo (one of the requirements of the coupon-eligible boxes), seems good enough to my ears. The box also allows you to choose how it sends the video to your TV screen: letterboxed to preserve the widescreen aspect ratio; cropped to fill the square screen at the expense of information on the sides; or ‘squeezed’, where the widescreen image fills the square screen, making everyone look really really skinny. This is actually my preferred method when a show is broadcast widescreen, as my TV (a Sony Wega KV-27FS17) has an ‘anamorphic’ mode that ‘squishes’ the ‘squeezed’ signal into a 16:9 area, increasing the resolution and quality of the displayed image (geeky tech-speak for “it looks better this way”).

However, our one big issue is simply this: when analog TV signals dropped or had some form of interference, you got a little bit of snow or static, but you could still watch the show. When digital TV signals drop or hit interference…well, if you’re lucky, you’ll just get some ‘blocking’ in the image, like when a video DVD has a fingerprint. More often, though, the signal drops so far that first the audio, then the video cuts out entirely. This ends up being far more frustrating than the old analog issues, as it’s a total disruption of the signal. As interference seems to depend a lot on weather, Prairie and I have taken to watching TV on the little 13″ TV in the bedroom that still gets analog signals on rainy nights rather than even trying to watch the big TV with the digital receiver. A crystal-clear signal is only good when you get that signal, after all!

I keep finding myself wishing they’d tweaked the digital transmission standard so that the video was the first thing to go with a bad signal, rather than the audio. If the video cut out but the audio was still going, you could still follow along pretty well while the video did its little dance of cubist surrealism, but when the audio craps out, it’s just frustrating (especially when watching, say, a show like Jeopardy).

I’ve heard that a good antenna could alleviate the problems, but when we’re living in a rental apartment, there’s not much we can do on that score. Good old-fashioned rabbit ears will have to do.

So, in the end, it’s a mixed bag. It’s great when it works, but when it doesn’t work, it’s a lot more frustrating than the “old-n-busted” system ever was.

Spy Hunter 2008

Generally, I’m not a fan of car commercials (there are a few exceptions, but they tend to be few and far between). However, this one from Pontiac…

…is just all sorts of awesome.