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Delivering Video On Demand Too Demanding For Cablevision

Cablevision Systems, one of the two biggest suppliers of subscription television services in the nation’s largest metropolitan area, has a problem. And it doesn’t really want to talk about it.
Written by Tom Steinert-Threlkeld, Contributor

Cablevision Systems, one of the two biggest suppliers of subscription television services in the nation’s largest metropolitan area, has a problem. And it doesn’t really want to talk about it.

Delivery of videos on demand are freezing up. The problem, according to a customer service representative, has been going on for weeks and the company has a team of technicians working on it.

In the meantime, a customer wanting to choose a video from inventory held on a Cablevision server in a datacenter may well order a movie – but not see more than a few seconds of its introductory moments before the image and the audio freeze in their tracks.

Cablevision’s answer? Reboot.

Here are the steps involved in rebooting a Cisco/Scientific Atlanta iO TV cable box:

The process takes at least 10 minutes – if you know what to do. It’s 20 minutes or more if you miss a step (like waiting for the current time to show up on the LED display), wind up just seeing a scrolling program guide and either (a) start over or (b) call customer support to get help.

Not a great way to spend a relaxing evening with the wife or family with a service that was designed to keep you from having to go to a video rental store or the automated video dispensing machine in your local Stop & Shop.

On Friday, January 9, this Cablevision customer saw his screen freeze at the outset of “Made of Honor,’’ before even opening credits could roll. Going back and trying to restart the movie produced basically the same result: The Columbia Pictures’ statue froze with torch in hand.

This was followed with an attempt to order and watch another movie, instead: “Must Love Dogs.” It froze at the introductory warning.

A call to customer support got nothing but elevator music. We plopped in a DVD, instead. When the movie served up on a platter was done, then, we unplugged, rebooted and let the system simmer overnight. The next day, it was okay.

A Cablevision spokesman, Jim Maiella, went as far as offering to roll a truck, to fix the problem. But that seemed like overkill (and not service available to every customer). Maiella’s gesture was appreciated, but declined.

Fast forward to Saturday, February 7. Having tried – and failed – to get the new release, “Bottle Shock,” at two $1 a day RedBox machines, a third attempt to order a video on demand ensured. But “Bottle Shock” also froze before the opening scene began.

Maybe there’s something wrong with my cable box and my cable box alone. But I don’t think so – not after the customer service rep on Feb. 7 said this was a problem that had been plaguing the company for weeks and that a team of technicians was working on resolving the “video freezing” issue.

ZDNet (that is, me) asked Maiella to look into the problem, making it clear that the inquiry was to see how widespread the problem was – not to get a single customer’s problem resolved.

After a pledge to “look into it,’’ the answer was:

“We looked into the issues you reported on Sunday night and saw the ordering activity and based on the difficulties you experienced rebooting the box is the recommended remedy.”

That remedy, of course, had already been applied. And while Maiella says there is “nothing widespread that I know of,’’ questions about what percentage of customers this is affecting, how long this is going on and whether something might be going on in the network or a Cablevision data center, where videos are served up, have been asked and left unanswered.

The “remedy,” of course, is not a long-term solution. Who’s going to keep ordering videos on demand if the definition is:

a. Order a movie. b. Get charged for the movie. c. Watch the movie freeze. d. Reboot. e. Lose 20 minutes. f. Start the movie.

It’s hard to extrapolate from the experience of one household. And I thought that this was an isolated case – until informed otherwise. By a Cablevision rep.

So, consider this a customer support inquiry: Anyone else seeing their videos freeze, when you “demand” one to start?

Is it my (or, your) system that needs to be rebooted – or Cablevision’s?

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