Tuned In

TiVo Speaks

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While chronicling my week in TiVo-service hell last week, there’s one thing I didn’t point out: I actually probably got better service than the average customer would have in the same situation. The average customer—as opposed to a TV critic—wouldn’t have had contact numbers at TiVo to call to get technical support after a morning and afternoon of having no luck with the toll-free customer-service number.

And the average customer wouldn’t have been able to get a TiVo executive on the phone after the fact. In the interest of letting TiVo tell its side of the story, I spoke with vice president of operations Art Clessuras Friday afternoon to ask, in essence: since TiVo’s product has to work in cooperation with local cable companies, why can’t TiVo and cable providers play better together? 

Unsurprisingly, much of Clessuras’ answers boiled down to: we’re aware of the problem, and we’re working on it. The heart of the issue with TiVo’s HD DVRs is that they require cable companies to install a Cablecard device to allow them to decode a cable signal (in essence, they need to be told which channels you’re allowed to get). While TiVo provides the box, your cable company’s system—a different one in every location—has to talk to the box to get it working.

And it’s in that chain of Telephone where problems can occur. When there’s a problem authorizing a card, it has to be resolved by a cable employee (sometimes a field technician, sometimes a tech sending a signal over the cable line). That employee may know something about TiVo boxes, or he or she may not. Meanwhile, your TiVo tech may know the hardware, but the cable folks have “about 80%” of the diagnostic  information from the Cablecard. 

Ideally, getting a Cablecard popped into your TiVo box and authorized remotely by your cable company should be, as Clessuras says, “a matter of a phone call.” And often it is: some Tuned Inlanders reported in the comments having a fast, painless experience getting their TiVo boxes up and running. Some cable providers—Clessuras is understandably reluctant to do too much singling out—have gotten more people trained working with Cablecards than others. 

When it’s not, the resolution may mean getting a knowledgable TiVo tech on the phone with a knowledgeable cable tech. And there the fun begins. TiVo, Clessuras says, has made Cablecard training a priority, though you can still get “somebody who’s a little greener” with the technology. (As I apparently did on my first calls to TiVo tech support last week.) Meanwhile, he says, TiVo does regular outreach to cable companies to get their staffers familiar with Cablecard issues. But when you call your cable company, will you get one of those trained agents? “It can be potluck sometimes. You don’t know if you’re going to get the best guy at the first stab.”

I asked Clessuras whether TiVo had encountered resistance from cable companies in spending time and money to enable the services of, essentially, a competitor. (Not only does getting a TiVo box keep you from renting your cable company’s DVR, it also—because it can’t send signals back to the cable company—prevents them from selling you video on demand, an increasingly big part of their business plans.) Here again, he was diplomatic—”they have a bias toward providing their own software”—but he also raised a good point: since TiVo’s Cablecard boxes work only with cable, every TiVo customer is one customer who doesn’t get satellite—and TiVo pays for the hardware and marketing to bring them in.

In the end, my feelings are more or less the same. I’m keeping TiVo, because it’s a great product (when it works) and because I’ve already paid for the box. I sympathize with TiVo, because they make a product that is at the mercy of another company’s cooperation; but I expect a lot of them, because they charge a pretty penny for a product that they knew would be at the mercy of another company’s co-operation. When you manufacture a high-performance but finicky piece of computer equipment, and market it as a piece-of-cake home entertainment product, you’re going to have problems. 

Because I don’t want to turn Tuned In into James Poniewozik’s Personal Consumer Complaints Blog, I’ll stop here, but if you have anything you want me to follow up on, post it in the comments. Operators are standing by.