Why doesn't it just work?

Posted on Sunday, August 1st 2010 at midnight

Sometimes I wonder if having a greater-than-normal awareness of technology can be more of a blessing than a curse. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen a quantum leap in technology and how it enriches our lives. Yet mixed in with that enrichment is the nagging feeling that things could be even better, if only for a certain factor that appears to be holding things up. One of my recent experiences illustrated that point.

Decades ago, if you wanted to follow a sports team and did not live in the area where the team was covered in the local media, you were limited to reading the newspaper, watching highlights on ESPN, or waiting for your team to play the local team or be covered on a national “Game of the Week.” For example, if you were a Philadelphia Phillies fan, but lived in San Francisco, you had to either wait until the Phillies played the San Francisco Giants, hope one of the major networks carried a game, or watched SportsCenter for game highlights. If you were an expatriate living in another country, you were basically out of luck.

In the early 1980’s, large satellite dishes made it possible for individuals to pull down network satellite signals. While the most popular use of these dishes was to obtain pay television services such as HBO for free, the dishes were also popular for obtaining out-of-market sports casts. Sports bars could also carry out-of-market games if clientele wished, and multiple playoff games could be carried at the same time. Expatriates could pull down signals from their home countries and get a little taste of home via the TV. The large dishes had several drawbacks - people felt their size made them an eyesore in residential neighborhoods, obtaining a signal required careful aiming of the dish, and overcast skies could make obtaining a signal difficult or impossible. Pay services started encrypting their signals, starting a piracy war where encryption-breaking technology resulted in stronger encryption methods and so on.

In the 1990’s direct-broadcast satellite dishes became popular, offering a number of advantages over the large dishes. Instead of having to search out many different satellites, owners could point their dishes at a single satellite and obtain many channels. Dishes could be much smaller as a result. Direct-broadcast providers signed deals with networks, so no encryption-breaking technologies were required. However, this moved satellite technology from an open to a closed service - dish owners were now subscribing to a service similar to cable. Due to technology limitations, satellite providers had to pick and choose channels that they carried. For the average viewer, this was not an issue; but for viewers with very specific needs, direct-broadcast satellite did not provide any benefit.

Direct-broadcast satellite providers began to realize that they had an advantage over local cable operators. Satellite providers needed to obtain all sports signals in order to provide a coverage that was competitive to cable television. As providers were already uploading all these signals to their satellites, they could start providing sports packages where subscribers could watch all the games they wanted or follow a team out-of-market. Going on our previous example, Phillies fans could now watch every Phillies game, and even hear the Phillies announcing team providing coverage. As cable providers began to consolidate, they began offering those same sports packages.

Fast-forward to today: high-definition TV is quickly becoming a staple in broadcasting. Many households have HDTV’s, particularly when people are sports fan, as sports coverage is one of the things that benefits most from HDTV coverage. As well, although it is a cliche, once you watch sports in HD, it is incredibly difficult to watch them in standard definition. One would think that the sports package system would keep up, but as I have come to discover both last year and yesterday, that is not the case.

Last year I was interested in purchasing the NHL Center Ice package (not linking due to my irritation that you will read about). As a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs living in New England, I’d like the opportunity to watch Leafs hockey games that are out-of-market and that feature the home announcing team. It seems like a slam-dunk, as those HD signals are already going up to their respective satellites. However, when I watched the free preview that Center Ice provided during the exhibition part of the season, less than a quarter of the Leafs games were in HD. I was so irritated by the prospect of having to spend $160 to watch the majority of games in standard definition that I refused to purchase the package.

This year, thanks to the World Cup and reading the biography of John Peel , I want to start following English Premiership Football , particularly Liverpool . I figured that there is probably some way to watch Premiership football in the US, and indeed Fox Soccer Channel has the rights to broadcast Premiership events in the USA. “Great!” I thought. “I don’t have to resort to some less-than-legal method to watch some matches.” However, the HD issue raised its head again. Comcast does not provide Fox Soccer Channel in HD, and while DirectTV provides FSC in HD, one cannot use TiVo boxes with DirecTV. And forget trying to go online and get the games streamed - the only online provider (again not linking) doesn’t provide any information on their website about the costs of their service.

This is absolutely ridiculous and patently absurd.

I understand that HD signals are much more information-intensive than standard definition signals, but it’s 2010 - we don’t have compression technology or just pure bandwidth available to overcome these limitations?

If a network is providing an HD signal, why isn’t a carrier providing it to its end users?

Why is so much of this mired in contractual issues? Why are a bunch of suits at the networks, cable companies, and satellite providers making it more difficult for people who want to pay them money to get the products the customers want?

Haven’t networks and providers learned the lessons from the mp3 era of piracy that a significant portion of piracy happens not because people are too cheap to buy products, but because people get frustrated with all the hoops they need to jump through in order to legitimately obtain a product?

It is incredibly frustrating to realize that history will probably repeat itself and sports fans will have to endure 5-10 more years of teeth-grinding idiocy before, like online music, people are able to obtain exactly what they want through exactly the channel they want to use. One can only hope that media companies will continue to hire media-savvy staff who realize that it is in their financial interests to clear away red tape caused by ego and laziness and make these products available as soon as possible.


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