21st Century Television (Part Two)

As promised, here’s a bit more information on the geeky details of how I’ve set up our cable-free TV system.

First off, credit where credit is due: I got a lot of pointers in setting all of this up from this post at Nyquil.org, along with a couple of follow-up email messages with Jer. Thanks!

  1. Set up a GigaNews Usenet account. While Usenet, in the pre-web days, was one of the premier methods of communicating across the ‘net and thus included free with most Internet packages, those days are long gone. Now, Usenet is the best and fastest way to grab those TV episodes we’re looking for, but it costs a few dollars a month to get access (far less than your average cable bill, however). There are other Usenet providers available, but Giganews was recommended to me, is working fine for me, and is reasonably priced, so I’m passing on the recommendation to you.

  2. Set up a (free) NZBs(dot)ORG account. .nzb files are the Usenet equivalent of Bittorrent’s .torrent files: pointers to all the various pieces of each media file. NZBs(dot)ORG lists NZBs in a number of categories; the TV > XVID category is non-HD if you still have an old non-HDTV; people with HDTVs may want to use the x264 category for 720p/1080p content.

  3. Install SABnzbd+. This is a free, open-source program that handles all the pain-in-the butt steps of using .nzb files. Without SABnzbd+…well, I’ll let Jer explain:

    …you…find yourself manually extracting RAR files, applying PAR2 files to regenerate missing chunks, and then disposing of all the compressed/encoded files after extracting your media file. Not to mention seeking out and downloading every episode of everything you want to download. It’s not for the faint of heart.

    With SABnzbd+, you simply toss it the .nzb file, and it takes care of all of that for you. Even better, it supports a “drop folder” system, so you can simply put a downloaded .nzb file into a folder, and moments later it automagically gets slurped into SABnzbd+ and the files start downloading. Even better than that, though, is its support for RSS feeds…and since NZBs(dot)ORG lets you save RSS feeds of particular searches, it’s relatively trivial to automate the downloading process.

    For my setup, I created an “nzb” folder inside my usual “Downloads” folder. Inside that, I have three folders: “new” (my SABnzbd+ drop folder, for adding manually downloaded .nzb files), “incomplete” (where SABnzbd+ stores the in-progress downloads), and “complete” (where SABnzbd+ stores the finished downloads after post-processing). I also have an alias to the media folder that the Roksbox software accesses; this is for my own convenience and not necessary in all setups.

    SABnzbd+ folder structure

  4. Set up and save searches on NZBs(dot)ORG for the shows you want to track. (NOTE: NZBs(dot)ORG has redesigned since this post was written, so these instructions aren’t quite correct anymore. They should be close enough to point you in the right direction, though.) Click on the “My Searches” link towards the top right of the NZBs(dot)ORG page, then click on “[Add]” next to “Saved Searches” towards the left of the “Add Search” page. Because NZBs(dot)ORG doesn’t allow for a preview of a search, I’ve found it easiest to keep the NZBs(dot)ORG front page open in a separate tab so that I can do a test search for my primary search terms, then look for which terms I want to exclude.

    For example, we want to watch CSI, but aren’t interested in the New York or Miami spinoffs. So, my saved search uses the search term “csi” in the “TV-XviD” category, but filters out anything with “dvdrip” (as I’m not interested in older episodes ripped from DVDs), “ny,” “york,” “miami,” or “geographic” (apparently there’s a National Geographic show that uses the initials CSI in its title).

    Safari002.png

    Eventually, you’ll build up a list of shows that will automatically populate whenever a new show that matches any of your saved searches appears on Usenet. Here’s a look at how my searches are set up — no snarks on our taste in TV, please, we’re quite aware of our guilty pleasures. ;)

    Safari003.png

    Now, see that little “RSS” link after each search? Those are going to come in very handy, as we flip back over to SABnzbd+….

  5. Add your saved searches to SABnzbd+. Under the “Config” link in the left hand sidebar of SABnzbd+, click on “RSS”. Copy the RSS feed link for one of your NZBs(dot)ORG saved searches, paste it into the “RSS Configuration” > “New Feed URL” field in SABnzbd+, name the feed something other than “Feed1”, and hit the “Add” button. That’s it!

    (While SABnzbd+ does offer various filtering options for RSS feeds, because you’re taking care of the filtering ahead of time in your NZBs(dot)ORG searches, you shouldn’t need to worry about these fields. If you’re using a different .nzb search site that doesn’t allow customization of RSS feeds, you should be able to use these filters to remove items you’re not interested in.)

    Safari004.png

    The first time SABnzbd+ scans the RSS feed, it will not download anything — this is intentional, as you probably don’t want to suddenly be downloading all of the items listed in the RSS feed. If there are any recent episodes that you’d like to download, you can click on the “Preview” button next to your newly-entered feed to choose which items you’d like to download.

    Go through and add the rest of the RSS feeds for your saved searches, and you’re all set. From here on out, as long as SABnzbd+ is running, it will keep an eye on your saved searches. Whenever a new episode that matches one of your searches appears, SABnzbd+ will see it in the RSS feed, grab the .nzb file, download everything it needs, assemble and decompress it, and store the finished download in the “completed” folder.

Now, if all you’re interested in is getting ahold of TV episodes and having them on your computer to watch, you’re set! I copy the downloaded files to a network drive and use the Plex software to pipe the shows over to the Roku player attached to our TV. Good to go!


NOTE: The following information is the original ending to this post, but is deprecated, as the situation is now simpler. However, I’m keeping it here for the sake of completeness.

However, in our case, I also need to convert the downloaded video from .avi to H.264-encoded .mov or .mp4 files, as that’s the only format that the Roku player will accept, and then move the files into their proper place within my computer’s webserver for Roksbox to access. While I haven’t been able to automate all of this, I have managed to use Automator, AppleScript, and the HandBrake video conversion software’s command line interface to automate the .avi to .mp4 conversion.

Now, I’m no Automator or AppleScript guru — this is actually one of my first experiments with either technology — so this may not be the best or most efficient way to handle this particular option. I’m certainly open to suggestions for improvement! However, it’s working for me…so far.

If you’d like, you can download my Automator action (121k .zip file). To install it, decompress the .zip file and add it to your ~LibraryWorkflowsApplicationsFolder Actions folder. Create a folder named “TV” inside the ~Downloadsnzbcomplete folder (it will be added automatically by SABnzb+ the first time it downloads a TV episode, but it needs to exist for this to work). Additionally, the HandBrake CLI must be installed in your main Applications directory.

To activate the HandBrake action, right-click on the “TV” folder and choose “Folder Actions Setup…” from the pop-up menu. In the Folder Actions Setup dialog, choose “Handbrake.workflow” and click the “Attach” button. Once that’s done, whenever SABnzbd+ finishes post-processing a download and moves the folder containing all of the files to the “TV” folder, this Automator workflow will automatically be triggered. Here’s what it does:

  1. Get Folder Contents and repeat for each subfolder found. This scans the TV folder and the folder that’s just been added to it to find all the contents.

  2. Filter Finder Items for files with the .avi extension that are larger than 20 MB (this avoids running into a conflict with the small quality sample .avi files that are sometimes included).

  3. Run AppleScript

    on run {input, parameters}
      set input to POSIX path of input
      set ConvertMovieCmd to "nice /Applications/HandBrakeCLI -i " & input & " -o " & input & ".mp4 --preset="Normal" ;"
      do shell script ConvertMovieCmd
      return input & ".mp4"
    end run
    

    This simple AppleScript: grabs the file passed to it by step two; converts the file path to use POSIX slashes rather than HFS+ colons as delimiters; creates a terminal command for the HandBrake CLI using the .avi file as input, the “Normal” preset, and simply appending .mp4 to the existing file name on output; and passes the newly created file to the next step in the action.

  4. Move Finder Items moves the new .mp4 file to the “complete” folder, one level up from the “TV” folder.

  5. Show Growl Notification pops up a sticky Growl alert to let me know that a new episode has finished transcoding. Obviously, this step will only work if you have Growl installed.

Eventually, I’d like to figure out how to get the action to move the folder containing the just-processed .avi file to the trash, but I haven’t quite figured out how to do that without possibly also moving any other folders at the same level to the trash (which might interfere with other downloads not yet transcoded), so for now, I’m sticking with manually cleaning up the extra files after the transcoding is finished.

From there, all that really needs to be done is moving the file from the “completed” folder to its proper place in the Roksbox file structure, and it’s ready to watch on our TV. I do a few other steps manually to “pretty up” the experience — adding “poster art” and XML-based episode descriptions for the Roksbox interface — but those are entirely optional, and many people won’t see the need to bother with those steps.

And that’s it! 80% of the process is now completely automated, and that last 20% that I do manually is entirely optional and basically just feeds my anal-retentive need to present things as slickly as possible whenever I can.

Hopefully all this has been interesting and informative to at least a few people out there. Questions, comments, ideas for improvement? Let me know!

21st Century Television (Part One)

A few days ago, I was finally able to follow through on something that Prairie and I had been discussing of and on for a few weeks — I called Comcast and disconnected our cable account. As we live in the Kent valley and are too blocked by mountains to get effective digital broadcast reception, this effectively bans broadcast television.

We’ve been working our way towards this for some time now, for two major reasons: one, sitting around and watching too much TV just isn’t healthy, and two, though there are a few shows that we enjoy watching, the commercials were just driving us up the wall. We had started by developing a number of “rules” — all in place before disconnecting the cable, but still in place — governing our TV consumption:

  1. No reruns. Not even if we haven’t seen that particular episode before. If it’s not a first-broadcast show, we’re not watching it. It’ll be out on DVD or made available for online streaming eventually, and we’ll watch it then, at our convenience, without commercials.

  2. The TV does not get turned on before 7:30 or 8 p.m. On any given “normal” night (that is, those that don’t have me at school until late in the evening) we tend to eat dinner at right around 6 p.m. In the “old days,” it wasn’t uncommon for us to grab our food, plop down in front of the TV, and zone out until 10 or 11 when we went to bed. Now, we’re eating at the table, finishing dinner, doing the dishes, and spending an hour or so playing games (our current obsessions are Set and Monopoly Deal) before the TV even gets turned on.

  3. The TV does not get turned on unless we exercise. We have a non-motorized treadmill and a reclining stationary exercise bike in the living room, and we have to put in at least half an hour each on either the treadmill or the bike if we want to watch TV.

  4. We watch only what we’re actually interested in. No more just turning the TV on just to see what’s on, or to flip channels, or for background noise (admittedly, not something we were in the habit of anyway), or anything similar. Unless we know we want to see something, we’re not bothering.

All of this was a great start, but over the course of the summer, one more piece of the puzzle fell into place when I added a Roku player to our entertainment system. I rambled on about our love affair with this little box a few months ago, but here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Cliff’s Notes Executive Summary: inexpensive, dead-simple, on-demand access to Netflix, Amazon Video on Demand, and a whole lot more.

Thanks to the Roku and Netflix’s library of streaming titles (plus the DVDs we get through the mail), there was never a question of whether there was something we were interested in watching — just a question of what we felt like that night. After a few weeks, it became clear that the only reason we were holding on to our cable subscription was because there were still shows that we wanted to keep up with. We toyed with the idea of ditching cable, as we knew that more and more TV was being offered online either through legal channels such as Hulu and Amazon VoD or through the quasi-legal Bittorrent network, but watching shows on my computer in my office just wasn’t as comfortable or convenient as sitting in the living room in front of the TV.

A few weeks ago, however, I discovered Roksbox, an add-on channel for the Roku that allows me to stream media from my computer to the Roku in the living room. Bingo! That was the last piece we needed.

So, cable and broadcast TV are no more for us. Instead, we have our personal DVD library, DVDs we order from Netflix, the entire Netflix on-demand library, and, for the current-run TV shows we want to keep up with, I simply download them and toss them into the Roksbox library for us to watch commerical-free at our leisure.

It’s a great setup. We’re spending less time watching TV, and when we do watch something, it’s hassle-free, commerical-free, and at our convenience. As far as we’re concerned, this is definitely the way to go.

So that’s the general, non-techie overview. In part two of this, I’ll get into the geeky fiddly bits of how I’ve automated the process of finding, downloading, and prepping the TV shows we pay attention to.

No Olympics For Us

While it’s not quite to the point of being what I’d call a “boycott,” it’s looking like the chances are extremely slim that we’re going to be watching much of this year’s Olympic coverage. We’d like to, but NBC has done a marvelous job of ensuring that we either can’t watch, or when we can, we don’t want to.

We just tried to watch some of this afternoon’s coverage. In the roughly fifteen minutes before we couldn’t take it any longer, we saw three commercial breaks, four talking heads (with audio lagging about a second behind the video feed), a bit of an interview with the first medalist from this year’s games, and eight-year-old footage from that same athlete’s first win in 2002. We listened to Bob Costas tell us that he was in Vancouver and that there were sports going on. We heard — again — about the accidental death on the luge track. We heard an interviewer ask an athlete “how he did it” after winning (um, he practiced his ass off, you idiot — why are sports interviewers always at the very bottom of the “stupid interview question” scale?).

What we didn’t see was any actual sports footage.

Oh, how I miss watching the last Summer Olympics on CBC, the Canadian network that Comcast carries locally. Their coverage was leagues better than anything NBC had: fewer inane talking heads (which can be interpreted as fewer talking heads overall or less inanity from the talking heads they had, either of which is an acceptable and correct reading); less “we’re the only country that matters” mentality; comprehensive coverage of all sorts of sports, even those that are less massively popular; and coverage that wasn’t constantly cut into with edits, updates, promises of what’s to come, and commercials (we spent one afternoon watching an entire marathon nearly commercial free, in part because we could, and in part because it was far more interesting than we’d ever realized, simply by virtue of actually being able to watch it). The realization that CBC wouldn’t be broadcasting the Olympics this year — and, further, that the Canadian network that got the contract isn’t viewable locally — was a sad one indeed.

Lately, we’ve been enjoying my new computer’s ability to watch streaming video sites like Hulu and Netflix, so I went to the NBC Olympics site to see what was available there. They’re posting a number of videos of stuff that has already happened, but prominently displayed on the main page is a live video stream (only active at particular times and for particular events, however). I click that, and am asked to tell NBC who my cable or Internet provider is. Apparently, NBC will only serve the live video to customers of certain other companies that they have contracts with. Annoying, but hey, Comcast is right near the top of the list, and we have Comcast cable, so we should be good.

After choosing Comcast, I get directed to a Comcast login page. I log in to Comcast, and they direct me back to the video stream…which tells me I’m not eligible. What? I go through the process again, and this time, work my way through until I discover that even though NBC has a contract with Comcast, and even though I’m a Comcast cable subscriber, I’m not the right kind of Comcast cable subscriber.

See, Prairie and I don’t watch a ton of TV, don’t see the need to pay ridiculous amounts of money for hundreds of channels we’ll never watch, and don’t even have a digital TV — both of our TVs are old, square, analog sets. So, there’s no reason for us to subscribe to digital cable, and we’re quite happy with our $15/month bare bones, completely basic, plug-the-cable-into-the-back-of-the-TV-set package (and honestly, we wouldn’t even bother with that if we got decent over-the-air reception with a digital receiver box, but OTA digital TV is essentially nonexistent in the Kent Valley). However, it appears that Comcast has decided that people like us don’t count, and is only sending the video streams to customers who subscribe to a digital cable package.

Crappy.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at Comcast’s website — and after poking around there, I think that digital cable prices might be one of the biggest arguments against upgrading our TVs until we absolutely have to (when they die, that is). Right now, we’re paying $15/month for a bare-bones package that serves us more than adequately — in fact, we only pay attention to about 7 of the 30-some channels that are part of the package, so there’s an argument to be made that even now, we’re over paying. If we were to upgrade to a digital cable package, the least expensive package available is $60 a month! Of course, what the website says is $30/month, but that’s only for the first six months. I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to quadruple what I’m currently paying so that I can have more crap that I’m not interested in piped into my home, no matter how pretty it is or how much of it has surround sound.

Further down the page, they mention a “Digital Economy Package,” apparently aimed at people like us, that actually is $30/month — but, of course, you can only get that if you also get your phone and/or internet through Comcast, which we don’t. So, once again, that’s not an option.

(Heading off counter-arguments: satellite TV isn’t an option, our apartment faces the wrong direction; and outlying the money for a HTPC/Media Center of some sort isn’t a realistic option for both budgetary reasons and that nagging little fact that we’re still using “old school” TV sets. I’ve got a very nice Sony TV set that’s only eight years old, and my parents have a Sony TV set that’s in its 30s and still working, so we may well not be upgrading our hardware for a long time to come.)

The end result of all of this? NBC can bite me, Comcast can bite me, and the Olympics — well, it’s not really their fault, but come on.

Comcast Clarification

Looks like I’ve got my answer: our Limited Basic service shouldn’t change. Here are the relevant tweets:

> @djwudi Limited basic will be channels below 30 will not need a box. What channel number are you concerned about? [#][1]

[1]: http://twitter.com/comcastcares/status/1048006847 “comcastcares: Limited basic will be…”

> @djwudi This isn’t happening immediately; it’s where we’re eventually moving. As you said, it’s seperate from the FCC broadcast transition. [#][2]

[2]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey/status/1048008881 “ShaunaCausey: This isn’t happening immediately…”

> @ShaunaCausey @comcastcares You two are fast! :) I know we’ll miss 99 (CBUT), they were great during the Olympics, and we’ve kept watching. [#][3]

[3]: http://twitter.com/djwudi/status/1048015644 “djwudi: You two are fast!”

> @ShaunaCausey @comcastcares My concern: there aren’t many channels above 29 on Limited Basic, but having them go *poof* isn’t “unaffected”. [#][4]

[4]: http://twitter.com/djwudi/status/1048019018 “djwudi: My concern…”

> @djwudi Good point. you will still get CBUT. If you are a “limited” customer, you will not lose any channels. 75-99 WILL still be there. [#][5]

[5]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey/status/1048055815 “ShaunaCausey: Good point.”

Sounds like a good end to this particular adventure to me!

**Update:** There have been some additions to the [Seattle Times article][6] that cover this same information. Here’s the relevant sections of their article:

[6]: http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/brierdudley/2008/12/08/some_faqs_on_comcast_digital_s.html “Seattle Times: FAQs on Comcast digital switcheroo (update 2, with info on remotes & CBC)”

> Q: What about public access channels above 29? (NEW)
>
> A: Comcast must still offer a handful of public access channels in analog format, per its franchise agreements. Tony Perez of Seattle’s cable office said that in Seattle, those channels include 75 (KCTS Plus) 76 (UW 2 TV); 77 (SCAN, the public access channel) and perhaps a few more.
>
> Q: What about Canadian public television channel 99 (CBUT)? (NEW)
>
> A: It will remain available to “limited basic” customers, spokesman Steve Kipp said in an email: “In addition to C-SPAN, C-SPAN2, the local broadcast channels and the local government and education channels, the Limited Basic lineup includes: Northwest Cable News, ION, Discovery Channel, KMYQ, KBCB, KHCV, QVC, HSN, KWDK, Hallmark Channel, KTBW, TVW, Univision, The Weather Channel and CBUT.”
>
> Kipp said the limited basic channel numbers won’t change: “As for channel locations here, they will remain the same so the Limited Basic channels that are in the 75 to 99 range would remain the same.”

Comcast Confusion

Well, maybe [this transition thing][1] isn’t as cleared up as I thought.

[1]: http://www.michaelhanscom.com/eclecticism/2008/12/09/maybe-comcastcares-after-all/ “eclecticism: Maybe @comcastcares after all!”

An update to the [earlier article][2] about Comcast’s transition to (nearly) all-digital broadcasting went online, and [it seems to be contradicting][4] what I was told earlier. Here’s the relevant part of the new article (added emphasis is mine):

[2]: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/brierdudley/2008480563_brier08.html?syndication=rss “Seattle Times: A digital switch on way for some cable customers, too”
[4]: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/brierdudley/2008484428_brier09.html?syndication=rss “Seattle Times: Comcast digital switch stirs more questions”

> Comcast is switching channels higher than 29 to digital format and requiring all televisions to have some sort of cable box to receive those channels. For “expanded basic” customers who don’t have cable boxes, the company will provide a free box. It also will provide two free adapters that expanded and digital customers can use on additional TVs that don’t have a box. **Limited basic customers — who only receive channels 2 to 29 — won’t be affected.**

This seems to agree with my initial interpretation from the first article: that there will be no change in service for Limited Basic subscribers, and it’s only Expanded Basic customers that will be receiving cable boxes and/or DTAs. Looking again at the tweets I received yesterday from Shauna, I wonder about the wording of this one (again with added emphasis):

> @djwudi Hi,Re:Comcast—You will not lose channels, you will actually get more. If you have **basic cable**, we’ll give you very small conver … [#][3]

[3]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey/status/1046448208 “ShaunaCausey: Hi,Re:Comcast…”

The problem I’m seeing, and the potential breakdown in communication, is that “basic cable” could be interpreted two ways: Limited Basic (the package I have), and Expanded Basic (the package planned to get the new boxes).

Under Comcast’s current channel line up (which I can’t link to, given the joys of Comcast’s website), Limited Basic customers get channels 2-29 as stated in the article, but they _also_ get 75-79, 99, a run of HD channels (which you would need a $6.50/mo HD box to receive: 104-107, 109-111 and 113), and four high-digit channels (115-117 and 119) that I’ve never seen, so I don’t know if they’re HD or if my TV just doesn’t pick them up. Based on the information provided so far, I can’t find a situation where Limited Basic subscribers “won’t be affected,” as stated in both articles from the Seattle Times. There appear to be two possible situations:

1. As implied in my conversations on Twitter, Limited Basic customers will receive DTA boxes that will allow them to receive the current channel lineup, or

2. After the transition, Limited Basic service will actually be _reduced_ to only channels 2-29.

I’m going to continue poking at Comcast to see if I can get a solid answer to this, but at the moment it’s a little confusing.

UtiliTV

As long as I’m babbling about the boob tube and whining about cable pricing, I might as well toss out my pie-in-the-sky, never-going-to-happen concept for what _I_ want as an option. I actually have two possible concepts, both of which seem like they’d be very doable in the present or soon-to-exist all-digital world.

1. **A-la-carte:** Get rid of these ridiculous “bundles” that give me seven channels that I’d pay attention to and sixty-three that I’d ignore. Show me your lineup and let me put my own bundle together. Give me what _I_ want to watch (local channels, Discovery, History, Sci-Fi, etc.), and don’t force me to pay for crap that I’ll never pay attention to (the six thousand variations of QVC, foreign language channels, etc.). I don’t have any issues with paying for content that I’m interested in, but I _do_ have issues with paying for content that I’m _not_ interested in.

2. **TV as a Utility:** Open the pipe and give me access to _everything_, but track what I watch and bill me for what I watch. Watching a few shows here and there is a small bill, feeling lonely and desperate for company and leaving the TV on 24/7 is a larger bill. Bill me for what I actually consume, not what you hope I might try to consume in my most desperate, anti-social, couch-potato moments of depression.

I don’t expect that either of these options are likely to appear anytime soon, if ever, but they make a _lot_ more sense to me than any of the current pay-TV models do.

Maybe @comcastcares after all!

Back when Prairie and I moved into this apartment, we ended up with Comcast cable. I wasn’t super excited about this, given all the horror stories about Comcast’s customer service [floating about the ‘net][1], but we didn’t have much choice. Over the air TV reception in the Kent valley is nearly nonexistent, and we’re on the wrong side of the building to get a DirecTV connection.

[1]: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=safari&rls=en-us&q=comcast+customer+service+-site%3Acomcast.com+-site%3Acomcastconnect.com+-site%3Acomcast.net&btnG=Search “Google for ‘comcast customer service -site:comcast.com -site:comcastconnect.com -site:comcast.net'”

So we signed up for Comcast’s most basic, entry level, all analog “Limited Basic” package. $18 a month gets us local channels plus a few extras, and our favorite surprise in the package was Channel 99 [CBUT][2], Vancouver BC’s [CBC][3] affiliate. We watched almost nothing but CBUT during the Olympics, and still tune in from time to time, having become fans of Canadian TV, and especially their sports (during the Olympics, they actually recognized that there were other countries competing) and news coverage (their coverage of the US Elections was an interesting break from the US media). In any case, our cable package isn’t fancy — we don’t even have a cable box, but just run the coax straight from the wall to the TV — but it’s enough for us.

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CBUT “Wikipedia: CBUT”
[3]: http://www.cbc.ca/bc/ “CBC.ca – British Columbia”

Yesterday I stumbled across an article about [Comcast Seattle’s upcoming digital transition][4]. While separate from the broadcast digital transition, it’s the same basic idea (replacing high-bandwidth analog with low-bandwidth digital) and, through somewhat unfortunate timing, will be occurring at about the same time as the broadcast switch. Since our package is analog, I was understandably curious about what to expect.

[4]: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/brierdudley/2008480563_brier08.html?syndication=rss “Seattle Times: A digital switch on way for some cable customers, too”

According to the article, “Customers with limited basic — just channels 2-29 — won’t be affected at all. Those channels will stay analog, so those customers can still just plug their cable into a new or old TV.” So far so good…but what about those channels above 29 that we’re currently receiving? Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of them, but there are a few, including those friendly Canadians. Are we going to lose them? And if so, would we _really_ have to nearly _triple_ our monthly cable bill in order to keep them around (since the lowest digital package that Comcast offers is a ridiculous $56/month)?

I figured I’d see if I could get a quick answer. I’d been following the [comcastcares][5] Twitter account for some time, after stumbling across some of the [impressive stories about their customer service approach][6], and fired off a couple brief tweets.

[5]: http://twitter.com/comcastcares “Twitter: comcastcares”
[6]: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&client=safari&rls=en-us&q=comcastcares&btnG=Search “Google for ‘comcastcares'”

> It’s hard for me to believe that @comcastcares when their TV tiers jump from $18/mo (bare bones analog) to $56/mo (entry level digital). [#][7]

[7]: http://twitter.com/djwudi/status/1046321586 “djwudi: It’s hard for me to believe…”

> @comcastcares BTW, that isn’t a rant at you or the stellar customer service you do through Twitter. I just think TV pricing is horrendous. [#][8]

[8]: http://twitter.com/djwudi/status/1046324921 “djwudi: BTW, that isn’t a rant at you…”

> @comcastcares When you go all digital in Seattle [http://xrl.us/o2kzp][4] will I lose the channels above 30 I currently get with Limited Basic? [#][9]

[9]: http://twitter.com/djwudi/status/1046328369 “djwudi: When you go all digital…”

A little bit later that evening, he came back to me with a preliminary answer:

> @djwudi I have to get the specifics but as I understand it all channels above 30 will not be available. I will find out more tomorrow [#][10]

[10]: http://twitter.com/comcastcares/status/1046352209 “comcastcares: I have to get the specifics…”

Not bad — within just a couple hours, I had a response. Admittedly, not an _encouraging_ response, but a response. Then, this morning, I woke up to find that within an hour after he’d responded, he’d referred me to a local Comcast representative, who told me the following:

> @djwudi Hi,Re:Comcast–You will not lose channels, you will actually get more. If you have basic cable, we’ll give you very small conver … [#][11]

[11]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey/status/1046448208 “ShaunaCausey: Hi,Re:Comcast…”

> @djwudi Oops, meant to add that Comcast will give you (free of charge) a small box that will allow you to get additional channels. [#][12]

[12]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey/status/1046451916 “ShaunaCausey: Oops, meant to add…”

I’m guessing that the “small box” that Shauna is referring to here is the “DTA” also being provided to multiple-TV basic digital subscribers.

> …Comcast decided to also start providing a secondary type of cable box to homes with multiple TVs.
>
> Called a “DTA,” this device is about the size of a box of frozen spinach and can be mounted behind a TV. It allows the TV to display channels 30 and above without a full cable box. They do not record shows, display program guides or enable rentals like a full box.

So, if I’m understanding this correctly, sometime around the February switchover, Comcast should be providing us with one (or hopefully two, as we have two TVs) DTAs that will allow us to keep our Limited Basic bare-bones service, while still getting the channels we’ve been receiving…and possibly a few more. Not bad.

Also of note (to me, at least) is just how effective and easy this was. I’m used to “customer service” that actually _prevents_ me from even making an attempt (calling Quest, for instance, involves navigating through a phone tree at a call center that operates on East Coast time, even though their customer service pages simply list hours of operation with no time zone listed, so us West Coasters don’t realize that closing at 6pm really means closing at 3pm when we’re still at work until we call and get nowhere). Being able to toss off a short, quick note and get a useful and polite response within a few hours is _wonderful_.

Comcast the corporate behemoth may very well have its fair share of issues (and then some — I must be honest, I’m not at all convinced that I’d [trust my internet connection to them][13]), but — at least on the Twitter level — Comcast’s employees are doing some very nice work.

[13]: http://slashdot.org/search.pl?tid=&query=comcast&author=&sort=2&op=stories “Slashdot search for ‘comcast'”

Somewhat coincidentally, this morning Frank (the man behind [comcastcares][5]) posted on his personal weblog about [his personal customer service philosophy][14], and it’s clear just why he does such good work. If only more people and companies would approach their customers with this kind of mindset.

[14]: http://www.eliasonfamily.info/blog/?p=158 “Time to be Frank: Redefining What People Think of Customer Service – Engagement”

> I have seen a lot of press and blog posts about the efforts of my team on the web. I have always been surprised by this because I do not see what I am doing as that special. If you review how I defined Customer Service, you will notice that I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to talk with Customers. I also believe that it is important to be where they are when possible. The internet provides that ability.
>
> To me if I hear someone talking about the company I work for I always offer to help. I have done this at parties, on the street, and one time in a Verizon Wireless store. I never have done it in a negative way. I would just say let me assist, here is my business card. My business card has my email, office phone and my cell phone clearly listed on it. It is very simple. “Let me know if I can help.”
>
> So now we look at engagement in social media spaces. In many cases I write simple messages, “Can I help” or “Thank you.” I do not use the time to sell which many marketers have tried to do. Yet these simple acknowledgements have led to many sales. The key is to be genuine and willing to sincerely listen and help. I never press, I simply provide the opportunity for someone to obtain assistance. For me if I saw someone who wanted or needed help anywhere, I would be happy to assist. As many of you know I have been known to do this many hours of the day, but that is because if I see someone that needs help, and if I can, I will.

I didn’t even have a major issue, but between [comcastcares][5] and [ShaunaCausey][15], it was a good experience. Thanks, you two!

[15]: http://twitter.com/ShaunaCausey “Twitter: ShaunaCausey”

Now we’ll just wait and see what happens come February. ;)