New TVs won’t end frustration!

The fancy new voice- and gesture-controlled TVs being introduced at CES this year are evidence that the TV makers don’t get (or even worse, can’t fix) the frustrations many people have with their TVs: The problem isn’t the TV!

The problem is controlling the TV and the cable box and the A/V receiver (and the Blu-ray player, etc). Elderly people, in particular, but many other non-techie people can’t grok multiple remotes to do something as (formerly) basic as watching TV. Many of my conversations with my mother involve trying to configure her TV and cable box so she can watch a show (channel 3 on the LG remote, then use the cable remote to change channels, but it doesn’t sink in for long).

I love Logitech’s Harmony remotes (and had one before Logitech bought Harmony), but neither my mother nor my wife can tolerate that it sometimes doesn’t turn everything on right the first time and you need to use the Help button and follow the steps to get it right. FYI, the Harmony One is a great remote and I highly recommend it to anyone who has more than one component in their home theater system!

So the problem is that universal remotes aren’t perfect nor very universal (and modal remotes that come with most TVs are worse). Something like control via HDMI tends to work very well, but no cable box I’ve used can be controlled via HDMI. For those who haven’t played with HDMI control, if the system is properly set up, turning on one component starts the other components and sets them to the right input. It sometimes even works, but is by no means foolproof. But then, the TV remote can change the receiver’s volume via the HDMI connection.

These fancy new TVs being introduced by the likes of Samsung and LG provide voice and gesture control, but they likely can’t do much with the cable box, which is solely the domain of the greedy and closed-thinking cable companies. Even if Samsung and LG do understand the problem, they probably can’t easily fix it. I hear everyone in the TV industry is quaking over the potential for Apple to make a TV, but I don’t even know if Apple can fix it unless they cut the cable TV providers out completely (which they could do with iTunes selling shows). Samsung’s new TVs will apparently work directly with DirectTV without the need for a tuner box, so that is a huge step in the right direction, but only if you want DirectTV. Those of us that rely on our cable companies for phone and internet access will not be as likely to jump on that bandwagon.

So what’s the solution?

I wish I knew. Perhaps Apple can beat the cable companies into submission like they did with AT&T and Verizon (OK, not submission, but at least they had to be a little more consumer friendly).

A short term solution would be to build TVs with CableCard slots, thus allowing us to bypass the cable boxes and use the TV to change channels (perhaps build in a DVR too). This is similar to Samsung’s DirectTV solution, but should have more general appeal.

Another solution would be to make the HDMI control scheme work better and be configurable (allow us to choose which inputs are selected for which activity, much like when setting up a Harmony remote). Then make the cable companies provide boxes that participate in HDMI-based control.

In the long term, perhaps Google or Apple or someone can get rid of the cable bundling and all the other crap and let us watch the shows we want when we want, allowing us to pay for what we want and not making us pay for a bunch of crap we don’t want. Then present it all through a simple on-screen interface and abstract however the video gets to the screen, whether it is downloaded, tuned, etc. The old media (TV networks) and cable companies won’t like that one bit, so we can only hope they either embrace change or get steamrolled.

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