This TV Tuner Cable Box 'Tis a Gift: Is It Sinful?

You might not have noticed it's a good idea to beware of geeks making gifts. This ain't about that ancient wooden horse named for a condom. I refer, naturally, to cable boxes that can receive off-air digital broadcasts.

Look, whether you believe it came from Pennsylvania, Oregon, or elsewhere, cable TV was originally a community antenna for broadcasts, period. But it wasn't long before cable subscribers got to watch things that those with their own antennas couldn't: Distant signals, weather instruments, stock tickers, fish in an aquarium (I am not making this up), and more stuff like that there.


By the early 1970s, there were also HBO, regional networks, and superstations, but I'm getting a little ahead of the story, (which ain't hard when you've got only one working neuron). The community-antenna systems were for rural areas where line-of-sight or low signal strength were the problems. Cities had a different problem--multipath.

You could pick up the world's cleanest signal at the community antenna and deliver it in mint condition to the antenna terminals of a TV, but the broadcast signal, bouncing around the urban canyons, would pass through the TV cabinet and add ghosts. It's a good thing a solution to the problem was already available.

When the FCC, Our Beloved Commish, authorized UHF TV, sets had only VHF tuners, so set-top adapter boxes were sold.

They had UHF tuners and VHF outputs. Cable just swapped out the UHF tuners for well-shielded VHF tuners. Lo and behold (but I still ain't sure how to lo), the cable box was born.

Now, then, TV sets tuned just Channels 2-13. Above Channel 6 in over-the-air land is FM radio and below Channel 7 is walkie-talkies and stuff like that there. But, in shielded cable-TV land, that stretch of 14 channels or so was fallow. Add satellites for nationwide delivery, and the nonbroadcast-programming industry was born.

These days, cable boxes offer hundreds of channels. Nielsen says the average U.S. home got 104.2 of them in 2006 (methinks the 0.2 was a narrowcast channel).

You might see statistics every now and then about how basic cable programming gets higher ratings than broadcast. What the headlines don't mention is that they're comparing the cumulative audience of all of the cable channels to what's on a handful of broadcast networks.

The greatest audience on a per-channel basis is almost always a broadcast channel. That's given most broadcasters a lot of leverage in retransmission-consent disputes--no money roll, no Super Bowl.

So CableLabs is coming to the rescue. They're developing specs for cable boxes with built-in off-air digital-TV reception.

Broadcasters have been complaining for years that Our Beloved Commish, in demanding digital 'tuners' for TV sets, didn't establish any specifications for them, so, naturally, makers of cheap TV sets would use the cheapest components they could get away with, and viewers might not get any reception.

Well, now, there ain't any such a thing to worry about with these dual-mode cable boxes. CableLabs is coming up with a super-stringent set of specs that will probably exceed anything that any broadcaster has ever asked for. That's on account of the cable folks wanting to make sure that those boxes pick up digital broadcasts no matter what.

The funny thing is that those really tight specs probably ain't going to add a lot to the cost of a digital cable box. A TV manufacturer or anyone planning to offer a digital TV adapter for analog sets needs to provide a tuner, an 8-VSB demodulator, a transport-stream demultiplexer, an MPEG-2 decoder, and an AC-3 decoder, at the very least. So, what does a digital cable box already have in it? There's a tuner, a transport-stream demultiplexer, an MPEG-2 decoder, and an AC-3 decoder.

All the cable folks have to add is an 8-VSB demodulator. They've got to have a QAM demodulator anyhow, and there are many chips that combine 8-VSB with QAM. TV set and DTV adapter makers are trying to keep costs down. Cable folks have already been spending upwards of $300 on some set-top boxes, so they can afford to go for a really good 8-VSB demodulator.

How come the digital cable boxes are so expensive? Well, now, you might start with that tuner. Ever since the first cable boxes, cable tuners have had to be better shielded, more selective, and better able to deal with distortion than off-air tuners.


Then you've got your electronic program guide, your conditional-access security system, the two-way circuitry to deal with video-on-demand and impulse pay-per-view, maybe a disk drive, maybe a DVD player (same decoders again), maybe an infra-red blaster to control a VCR, maybe a spigot for a phone, maybe a spigot for a cable modem--there are lots of options. The bottom line is that it ain't a big deal for cable folks to add top-notch digital-broadcast reception capability to their boxes.

So the only question is why they'd want to. They've been fighting multicast must-carry; why would they invite it into their subscribers' homes?

The main answer has got to be those retransmission-consent disputes. Can't come to an agreement with a broadcaster? Pull it from the system.

The cable subscriber loses nothing. The broadcast-cable combo boxes can switch seamlessly between broadcast and cable reception. The cable op immediately frees up the bandwidth used by the broadcast channel and maybe the additional bandwidth occupied by channels that were part of the retransmission-consent agreement, like, for instance, ESPN-8 for ABC, MTV-16 for CBS, Fox News for Toddlers, and MSCNBCU.

Here's another thought (it takes only one neuron). I ain't a lawyer, and I'm too lazy to look stuff up, but it seems to me that there might not be any rule preventing cable ops from restricting the tuning capability of their boxes. In other words, maybe they can let their subscribers receive the Super Bowl off air but prevent them from getting any broadcast multicasts, datacasts, or even program guides.