Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Recently I’ve had to deal with telephone customer support. This of course is an activity that most rational human beings avoid like the plague. Generally speaking I’d rather endure toenail surgery without anesthesia than spend time dealing with “customer service”. Unfortunately the problem was that I was unable to watch the latest Game of Thrones on HBO and that is a DEFCON ONE crisis. All of a sudden I started receiving the following message on the HBO channels: “Your TV does not support this programs content protection. Replace the HDMI cable with component cables.” Since there may be children in the room, “WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT!!!”

HDMI is the highest-end cable available for HD video. HBO and/or Direct TV are requiring a (slightly) lower-end cable? Makes no sense. Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen were waiting for me, so off to Direct TV support I went. Menu after menu, repeated account number inputs, depression, a new gray hair, and I finally got a live person on the line.

Complaint number one: If you have a fancy voice input system that asks repeatedly to provide your account number, name, hair color, and soft drink preference, why is the first thing a live person asks is to provide the same information? I think the strategy is to induce a state of depression so deep you simply give up and watch infomercials instead.

Complaint number two: When I was finally asked what the problem was I replied “I’m receiving an error message”. Without waiting to hear what it was, her response was, “let’s go ahead and reset the box”. Now if you’re unfamiliar with a satellite STB box reset it takes about 7 minutes of sitting through on-screen messages cheerfully informing you “almost there!”.  I’d actually already tried that before calling, so there was no way in hell I was going to do it again. I’m not a particularly chatty person, so seven minutes of small-talk with a support rep to do something I’d already tried just wasn’t going to happen. Naturally I spent longer than that arguing that I wasn’t going to do it, than it would have taken to just meekly follow along with her troubleshooting script.

Here’s where my brains began leaking out my ears.  I finally convinced her to let me tell her the error message and then asked, “Are you or HBO no longer supporting HDMI cables?” Her answer – “Sir, I’m not familiar with what this HDMI is. Have you checked our on-line forums?” I’ll spare the rest of the gory details, but after multiple escalations the best answer I was able to get was that this was a change HBO just made and it’s out of Direct TV’s control. Sigh… Fortunately I have access to Al Gore’s INTERNETS (side note, I’m wondering if I should switch from AOL? I have all those free CD’s).

I spent some time on a few AV forums. Fair warning, it’s important to severely limit your time there – that’s a level of geekdom that results in a strong desire to play D&D. What I did figure out is that HBO started implementing HDCP several years ago. WARNING, technical content to follow! Any fairly recent (~5 years) HDMI implementation includes HDCP which is a content protection protocol. The host device queries connections and, upon discovering an HDCP compliant port, establishes a sink and provides a key for decryption. This enables content providers to encrypt video with the master key and for your device to decrypt it. Turns out some clever folks have been able to pirate (gasp!) content via non-HDCP HDMI cables. HBO (and most content providers) either have already, or will begin going this route shortly.

For anyone left reading, here’s the “can we all just get along” part. My TV (Samsung) is brand-new and the specs indicate HDCP compliance. Direct TV claims their HD STB correctly implements HDMI/HDCP and it’s not their problem if Samsung doesn’t correctly respond to the HDCP handshake. The Direct TV support rep doesn’t know what HDMI is. The Direct TV technical escalation engineer claims HBO “just” implemented this a few weeks ago. HBO reportedly implemented this several years ago. HBO provides no way of contacting them other than carrier pigeon or via email that thier web site states “due to volume of mail received we can’t respond to all inquires”.

I love technology. Seriously. But the more technical the advances the more complicated the interactions become. Supporting them becomes a massive finger-pointing exercise in futility. If you were making minimum wage as a support rep, would you be interested in discovering HDMI/HDCP handshake sequences? As Mr. King once said (no, not that Mr. King) “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle”. He also reportedly said “Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. The lesson is, never try”.

Small chance that last one might have been Homer Simpson, I’m not sure.


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