CableCARD: What Happened?

Point the finger almost anywhere you want. After all, there's plenty of blame to go around. Cable companies didn't really support it. TV manufacturers charged extra for it. The people who designed it left out a few things. And the federal government - it started the whole mess.

I'm talking about CableCARD. Never heard of it? That's not surprising. It was supposed to make your TV-viewing life better, but it ended up just making things more frustrating and expensive.

Like most fiascoes, CableCARD started with the best of intentions. The FCC decided that consumers needed "digital cable-ready" TVs, which would do away with traditional set-top cable boxes. These TVs would have onboard cable tuners - and they'd also have a slot for a CableCARD, which would handle customer ID/authorization and decode premium channels. Because the government can do anything it wants, especially when that thing is for "the public good," the FCC forced CableCARD onto the industry by banning cable companies from offering set-top boxes at some future date. (The actual date keeps changing. For now, it's July 2007.)

Complying, TV manufacturers started making sets with tuners and CableCARD slots. Cable companies started providing CableCARDs - physically, the footprint of a PCMCIA Type II card. And what a technological wonder it was. The card simply plugged into the slot, and the set-top box was gone forever. Clearly, your life was suddenly immeasurably better. Except for one thing. CableCARD sucked.

The first thing that customers noticed: Their CableCARD-ready TVs were expensive. Early on, the price difference was truly staggering. One Pioneer plasma TV with CableCARD cost almost $1,000 more than the identical model without it. Price differences did drop to about $40, but something extra is never free.