Remember not long ago I threatened to write about the process of (re)configuring my home theater equipment?

What, you thought I was kidding?…

What’s frustrating is this:  my girlfriend and I have a system we’re perfectly happy with. Nothing terribly high-end, but carefully researched and assembled. DVD players and recorder and a nice surround-sound setup. In particular, we watch high-definition (HD) signals on an HDTV, aided by a HD DVR. It all works and does what we want. And yet… even though we don’t watch any analog programming, I find that we’re going to be affected by the long-delayed but now impending switch to all-digital broadcasting on February 17th.

A little backstory:

We don’t watch a lot of television, really—just a few hours a week. Beyond that it’s mostly DVDs… and if there’s a series one of us hears good things about and wants to catch up on (nuBSG, The Wire), hey, that’s all available on DVD too. So I’ve always resisted subscribing to cable or satellite. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see the point of paying a hefty monthly subscription fee just to have access to a much larger list of stuff I have neither the time nor the inclination to watch. Six or eight channels of plain old off-the-air (OTA) broadcast television is really more than enough.

I bought the HDTV back in 2003—during the period when government regulations did not yet require all sets to include a HD (i.e., digital) tuner. Ergo, although “HD ready” and capable of displaying 1080i resolution, the set only came with an old-style SD (analog) tuner.

So, initially, we stuck to watching plain old analog resolution (480i) programming on a set that was capable of much more. After a couple of years, though, I got tired of that. All the local stations were doing regular simultaneous HD broadcasts by then—our set was capable of displaying them, in widescreen, with surround sound, and all the bells and whistles—and I wanted to see them that way, by gum. All I needed was a way to pick up those broadcasts.

That was considerably easier said than done. By the time I was shopping for a HD tuner, in 2006, all the new sets included them. As for owners of “legacy” sets, there seemed to be an unspoken conspiracy among manufacturers and retailers to force everybody to go with cable or satellite. There were only a couple of freestanding HD tuners that had made it to market (and they didn’t get great reviews), and a couple of combined HD tuner/DVR units. That last option was appealing; it was well past time to retire the VCR anyway. The best option seemed to be the Sony DHG-HDD line, and although it had recently been discontinued (and not replaced with anything newer), with a little noodling around on Ebay I was able to find an inventory unit with a 250 GB hard drive.

We got the DVD recorder at the same time, to allow for longer-term archiving of programs we wanted to keep, and a high-pickup antenna, to help snag those OTA HD frequencies. And after a little diligent trial-and-error (ever notice that most user’s manuals don’t really explain adequately how to connect their equipment to other manufacturers’ equipment? I actually had to draw up a diagram of how to get it all cabled together), we got everything working in the happy arrangement I described above. Added a Harmony programmable remote a little while later (highly recommended!), and that was that.

So where does that leave us? Well, since the DVR doesn’t rely on a cable or satellite system, nor a subscription program guide like TiVo, it instead uses TV Guide On Screen (TVGOS), a free program guide that’s broadcast in every local area of the country. Gives you eight days of customizable listings. It’s not quite as user-friendly as TiVo, but OTOH it kicks hell out of what it used to take to program a VCR, and you can’t beat the price. Sounds pretty good, right?

Here’s the catch:  even though every program we actually watch now comes in on a HD channel, the TVGOS signal itself is carried on a subfrequency of an analog channel—usually the local PBS station, in our case Chicago’s channel 11. The DVR automatically tunes in that source one you’ve entered your zip code, and downloads new program listings nightly. And the DVR is completely dependent on TVGOS in order to function—without it you can’t so much as set the clock, much less record a show.

And all the analog broadcasts, including the one carrying the TVGOS signal, are ending in February.

(And they haven’t been too reliable lately, anyway—I’ve noticed the DVR’s clock has arbitrarily turned off a number of times in recent weeks, only to reset itself later. A harbinger of things to come, in a sense.)

Not wanting my perfectly functioning DVR to become an expensive doorstop, I started looking for a solution. (It’s not as if there are any alternative components on the market I could upgrade to even if I wanted to—the only real fallback option would be a Series 3 TiVo, finally released last year, which has HD tuners and (of course) DVR functionality… but it also has less recording capacity for the price and, of course, requires a subscription fee for its proprietary program guide.) I assumed that neither Sony nor the owners of TVGOS would want their products to become defunct, right, much less to piss off an otherwise satsified customer? So I e-mailed their respective customer service departments, describing the problem (much more concisely than in this blog) and asking for advice.

That’ll teach me to make assumptions. Sony’s response:

I’m glad to assist you with the information on TV Guide feature of your Sony Digital Video Recorder. Since the TV Guide On Screen feature uses analog signals to acquire program information, it will no longer be available if using an antenna for over-the-air reception after the Digital Television (DTV) transition on February 17, 2009.

Which, of course, merely restated my problem. (And is copied straight from Sony’s online support database.)

TVGOS’s response:

After the switch, the only way for you to continue getting listings Over the Air is to purchase an Echostar TR40 (for more info please visit www.dtvpal.com).

That may seem marginally more helpful, but I’d already visited the web site and confirmed that the TR40 is a set-top box for people wanting to convert digital broadcasts to watch on old analog TVs. That’s obviously not my situation, and I couldn’t even see how such a box would be useful in my system.

However. The latter answer carried the clear implication (contra the former answer) that the TR40 would at least be able to pick up TVGOS signals from somewhere in a digital OTA environment… meaning that despite what Sony told me, it might well be possible to reprogram their DVR to do the same.

Here’s where the internet comes to the rescue! There is a burgeoning community of tech-head home theater aficionados on the site AVSforum.com (it’s on my blogroll!), who I would venture to say have more collective knowledge about today’s home entertainment products than any corporate customer service department and, more importantly, are actually willing to share that information. Moreover, it turns out that there is handy FAQ and an entire spin-off discussion forum dedicated exclusively to this short-lived line of Sony DVRs, and the users there have active discussion threads about various problems with TVGOS—obviously including this one, which looms over everyone who owns one. And they have access to information (through what sources I do not know) not divulged in the user’s manual nor on the company’s web site.

Long story short (or is it too late for that?), it seems that in recent months most CBS owned-and-operated stations around the country have started transmitting the TVGOS signal—attached to their digital broadcasts—including, as of late October, Chicago’s WBBM (channel 2.1). And there’s a procedure you can use, by entering some special key combinations and a nine-digit code on the remote control, to get to the “hidden” service screens on the DVR and force it to change the default station at which it searches for that TVGOS signal.

I carefully followed that procedure last night, and let the listings propagate overnight, and checked this morning… and found that the clock was fine, and the newest listings were in place, and the service screen still showed the “host channel” for the TVGOS signal set to the digital source.

So, problem solved! For free! Thanks entirely to my anonymous fellow users online, and with absolutely no thanks due to the corporations involved. (Was there ever a golden age of genuinely useful, helpful customer service, or do we only imagine it?)

You know, I remember when I was a kid (not that long ago—really!), this stuff was much simpler. There was only one way to get TV signals (an antenna), and only one way to get them into your TV (flat twin leads), and that set only displayed one resolution (480i, not that we needed to know the term then), and there was only one way to find out what was on (look it up in print, either in the newspaper or TV Guide), and only one way to change the channel (walk across the room to the set), and everybody understood how all of this technology worked. You didn’t have multiple competing standards for all of the above, and the sneaking suspicion that you need a Masters in electrical engineering to make it do what you want. There’s a reason stores today can charge high hourly rates just to send someone out to set up your new TV for you.

I’d like to think that it’s just a phase, that we’re in the midst of some transitional technologies, and it’ll all sort itself out in a few years at a level of ease-of-use that people can actually manage. But I don’t really believe it. Home electronics manufacturers (and content providers) have learned something from computer and software manufacturers over the last quarter-century, and it’s not about keeping the customers satisfied. It’s about keeping the customers on a constant upgrade path, whether they want it or not… and no matter how much of a learning curve it requires. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

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2 Responses to “Fun ‘n’ games with home electronics”
  1. […] Vote Fun ‘n’ games with home electronics […]

  2. It’s also about DRM, from what I’ve heard.

  3.  
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