Back in 1994 I managed to break free from the clutches of a tyrant that was holding my entertainment dollars and enjoyment hostage. That tyrant was Garden State Cable (soon to be absorbed by an even bigger tyrant—Comcast).

In 1994 Garden State Cable offered 62 channels of television for $90 a month. The service was anything but service as it was often out of commission. When it was working it was nothing to get excited about. The picture quality was often poor and I was on a first name basis with most of the repair guys as they were coming out weekly to adjust the picture back to where it belonged. Every time it rained everything went to pot. We had two HBO channels with rumors of a third somewhere down the line. Pay-Per-Views were $5.99 each and there was no concept of getting to view them over the next 24 hours. You sat down and watched it when you ordered or else you lost out. They had no concept of an on-screen guide. In fact, they barely had a guide channel.

Then I saw a commercial for satellite TV service from DirecTV. I had been thinking about possibly getting one of those large 10′ dishes but my wife wouldn’t hear of it. Plus the costs ran into at least a few thousand dollars let alone the visual distraction that such a BUD (Big Ugly Dish, as they’re called) would cause. DirecTV was suggesting that I could join the digital revolution (not that I bought into the idea that all things digital are inherently better than analog) for around $800 including a cutting-edge receiver and an 18″ round dish. They claimed the picture and sound were superior to cable and that their monthly pricing was better. I had to find out.

I installed the first dish with the help of a friend who owned a BUD himself. We ran the cabling and then turned it on. We were both impressed. The picture quality was stunning and the audio was clean and crisp. The new onscreen guide was fantastic. It made it feel like so much more was on. It was the first sign that I didn’t need to be a captive of commercials. The guide alone nearly ended the concept of channel surfing which was a time-honored tradition in most every household of the day.

I could order Pay-Per-View’s without having to call anyone. Plus there were pages of PPV channels to choose from. Furthermore, they were priced at $2.99 and you got a coupon for $2.50 off the first order each month. It even included music channels—something Garden State was offering for an additional $10 a month and requiring another bulky box and setup. Then there was NFL Sunday Ticket. For an additional $99 I could get up to 13 games each Sunday. As a Raiders fan in the Philadelphia market, that was an instant impulse buy. TV was never better.

Garden State responded, not by realizing that their product was inferior, but instead decided that the best course of action was to defame the competition. I started getting phone calls telling me that DirecTV was going to fail, that the next strong wind would blow my dish off the roof and that I’d never get my local channels. Their sales department would also call me and continue to offer me “deals” where I could get three HBO channels for only $19 a month. Meanwhile DirecTV was providing me with seven HBO channels for about $10 a month. In fact, for 100 channels of TV I was paying a total of $52 a month. I’d cut my bill nearly in half while adding almost 40% more channels. Plus the channels offered better quality along with better technology.

The only problem in my area is that Comcast has an exclusive on local sports team coverage. In those early days of being a DirecTV customer things weren’t so bad. I could pay DirecTV $52 a month and continue to pay Comcast $22 a month for a premium movie/sports channel called Prism along with basic cable TV service. I was still saving almost $20 a month and getting it all. Then Comcast decided to buy Prism out and fold it into a new channel called Comcast SportsNet. The big blow came when they announced that SportsNet would only be available as part of basic cable service for $35 a month. At that point I stopped getting Comcast programming year round and only got it once each year when the Philadelphia Flyers went to the NHL playoffs. That not only gave me a chance to see the Flyers but also gave me a first-hand trial of Comcast’s progress against DirecTV each year.

From 1994 to about 1998 very little changed. DirecTV continued to be the clear winner and each year I sent back the Comcast equipment wondering how Comcast managed to keep so many customers. In fact, things even improved for DirecTV customers in a few areas. We not only got our local channels but also got west coast feeds of the main networks. That allowed DirecTV customers to enjoy the benefits of substantial time shifting of shows. Miss Seinfeld at 9pm? No problem, it’ll be on at midnight for me to record on the west coast feed.

Then around the millennium I could no longer say that DirecTV’s picture was as impressive as it had once been. As DirecTV grew, they appeared to forget about the power customers who made their success possible. They started adding channels like they were going out of style. Of course each new channel resulted in more compression for all channels which ultimately comes at the cost of a lesser quality picture. I also was getting concerned at the escalating costs. What was $52 in 1994 ballooned to $90 by 2002. NFL Sunday Ticket added to the costs. Each year it went up a minimum of $10. In 2005 it’s now well over $200 for the core package.

The courts then went to work on limiting DirecTV’s ability to provide distant network feeds. Many have now lost those options. I myself just lost all the west coast High Definition feeds.

In 2004 I again picked up Comcast to watch the Flyers in the playoffs and was shocked to find that they’d improved dramatically. Comcast now was offering 66 movie channels to DirecTV’s 33. Prices for each company’s best package was within $10 a each other. While the cable set-top box was still not up to the quality level of DirecTV’s, it wasn’t too far off either. It now offered most everything DirecTV’s did, albeit a bit more sloppily. I still wasn’t impressed with the poor quality of Comcast’s biggest feature—OnDemand. I found it to be unresponsive and full of digital artifacts (video glitches that result from, among other things, over-compression).

I sent back the equipment, as usual, when the Flyers ended their playoff run, but had finally come to realize that Comcast was closing the gap quickly and might pass DirecTV by the next hockey playoffs. I didn’t know then that there would be no playoffs the following year. The entire NHL season was lost to a labor dispute.

I decided it was time to call DirecTV and point out that, of the long list of reasons why I bought into DirecTV, only a mere few remained to keep me going as a customer. I still could get regular west coast network feeds. NFL Sunday Ticket was still exclusive to DirecTV. DirecTV’s set-top boxes were still superior and DirecTV, until after my call, was still onboard with TiVo‘s superior PVR technology (they have since dropped this support in favor of providing their own service.)

The call went fairly well as DirecTV still has customer service that is second-to-none. Their regular customer service people are as hit-and-miss as most other companies, but if you have a real problem and can’t resolve it, you’ll end up speaking with the Customer Retention department where just about anything is possible for the customer. Furthermore DirecTV recently added the concept of identifying their “best” customers. I’m on the list so when I call customer service the representative is alerted to my status and responds accordingly.

However, there still has been little forward progress since my calls and, in fact, things seem to be going backwards. I cancelled NFL Sunday Ticket for the first time over what I felt was price gouging. Out of nowhere DirecTV decided to charge customers an additional fee to see the games in HD when we’d gotten nearly all possible HD games last year for free. Then, as I mentioned, I lost my west coast HD channels. Now DirecTV is spending a fortune to change their technology over to MPEG-4 technology. This is supposed to allow for better picture quality and more channels. So far all its meant is that they’ve used up all their available space to provide local channels in HD. I already get mine for free with a standard HD antenna so this of no use to me. The changeover also means that, at some point, everyone will need to swap out their hardware to get new dishes and set top boxes that support MPEG-4. Initially everyone was told that DirecTV would eat the cost of this swap. However, customers currently interested in adopting the new technology are being charged variable fees from $49 to $99 or more to get the new equipment. Word is that those waiting until we must change over to the new equipment will get it for free. Meanwhile the new equipment shows all the tell-tale signs of being inferior to the equipment its replacing.

I called about possibly replacing my two receivers (one is Zenith HD box and the other is a standard definition TiVo) and found all sorts of concerns. First, DirecTV currently has no HD PVR to offer that supports the new MPEG-4 technology. Second, the HD receiver they do offer is getting mixed reviews from the few users who have it. For example, hitting the Guide button doesn’t bring up the Guide. Instead it brings up a menu asking you which filter you want for the Guide (All channels, favorite channels, etc.) and then another press brings up the Guide. Doh! Third, their new standard definition PVR has been a total mess which suggests that their HD PVR will be no better.

I just read a story on USATODAY.COM regarding these issues and it doesn’t instill any confidence in their planning or the people behind the process. The PVR has already received its second software update since last month when it was first released. Talking about the situation, their Chief Technology Officer said, “Some things are not as intuitive as we thought, and we’re polishing it. It’s the kind of thing we do for a living.”

Really? You have 15 million customers and have more experience with TiVo equipment than any company on the planet and yet, when you release your own PVR, customers find it to be unintuitive? Did you not do any sort of real market testing? I have my doubts. Apparently it’s the kind of thing you do badly for a living. Any group that thinks it’s a good idea to have a Guide button not immediately bring up the Guide needs to be re-evaluated. Things don’t get much more basic than this.

One of the major strengths DirecTV had over cable was that their set-top boxes were manufactured by several vendors which kept them competitive and offered users a nice array of features and options. DirecTV-controlled boxes have not measured up. Their HD TiVo was a fiasco. It lacked basic features that other HD boxes had offered for years and suffered from all sorts of technical failures. Their regular receivers have fared no better. One of the boxes featured an on-screen Caller-ID feature that rebooted the receiver whenever an out-of-area call came in. Worse, that bug wasn’t addressed for a year.

One of the best features of a TiVo is its ability to anticipate your intentions when you fast-forward or rewind. It basically backs up a number of frames when you stop either action so that you don’t miss anything or need to hop around. Once you get used to this there’s no going back. Fast-forward through a commercial until you see your show. When you stop, the feature backs up and usually lands you right at the black screen leading right into the start of your show. The new PVR doesn’t support this feature. DirecTV’s Chief Technology Officer added that the new software update will help with the fast-forward issue but that it won’t mimic the TiVo feature. He said, “Some people want it to stop where they press and not try to read their minds. It’s a choice.” It’s a choice? Where? Apparently not on your receiver it isn’t. He finished by saying that if you’re new to PVR’s you’ll love this unit. I doubt it. Perhaps if you’re new to television you might like it. The rest of us want DirecTV to at least give us the same level of features we already have experienced.

For now I’m not sure what to do. I have hope that things can improve and the thought of going back to Comcast just doesn’t strike me as a step forward. All I want is to return to the benefits of the technology I invested in back in 1994. Give me a noticeably better picture, more features and a better price. That’s what I invested in. Eleven years later I’m getting a worse picture, less channels than the competition, set top boxes that are worse than the ones they’ve replaced and lots of marketing spin that is quickly becoming insulting.

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