January 24, 2007
Cable Companies and Their Little Black Boxes

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes about what he calls "The Black Box Fallacy," which he describes as the philosophy that, eventually "all media content is going to flow through as ingle black box into our living rooms (or, in the mobile scenario, through black boxes we carry around with us everywhere we go" (14). Jenkins points out, though, in a phenomenon that shows no sign than letting up, that there are "more and more black boxes" (15). He is very correct in saying that we MIT students are carrying "their laptops, their cells, their iPods, their Game Boys, their BlackBerrys, you name it" (I don't have a Game Boy, but the gaming sector is certainly well represented around the campus).

Those words came back to me when I was reading Brad Stone's recent New York Times article about cable companies' efforts to improve their cable boxes, while facing stiff competition from a variety of providers that may usurp the power of cable companies by providing new delivery systems, such as the Apple TV product. Back in September, I wrote about this product and particularly the fears some people had that DRM may affect the technology, as well as discussions about whether the service would eventually replace cable television subscriptions completely. More solid news about Apple TV came out earlier this month.

Stone writes, "For many Americans, the cable box -- still commonly called the set-top box, though it is now too big to balance on top of increasingly thin TVs -- may be the most disappointing piece of technology in their homes. As inventions like TiVo and YouTube alter the way people watch and control video, the traditional box has largely failed to keep up." The CES show was a launching pad for aggressive new cable technologies for these companies, especially after Comcast found that the FCC was not going to extend the 01 July deadline for cable operators to make their cable services work with third-party technologies.

The article points out that the industry is facing fierce competition for its boxes in recent years, with a variety of new technologies available. And, as Jenkins points out, this doesn't lead to a lack of boxes but rather competition in the marketplace, an expansion of possibilities (and perhaps too many boxes to hide respectably if one wants to make your media environment look "classic" in design).

As Stone said, "The message to cable companies and their equipment vendors is clear: if they want to keep up, they must build a better cable box." The article identifies some of these new plans for products, with expanded digital video recorders that have increased hard drive space, greater high-definition capabilities, and capabilities to burn programs onto disc.

Stone points out the competition from telephone companies, Internet companies, third party technology providers, and a plethora of other sources that are putting the pinch on these cable providers.

The article is definitely worth a look and highlights some of the trends we've been writing about regularly here on the C3 blog.

For more reactions to articles by Brad, see my post earlier this month about small video sharing sites filling in the niches around YouTube, my December post about spam, and another December post about Wal-Mart digital downloads.