Infinite Pest: Foxtel IQ3 is an insult to our TV-addicted intelligence

iq3_hero_imagery

YEAR OF NETFLIX

It is an unspoken law of publishing that the more pages a book has, the smaller the font will be. Infinite Jest (1996) is 1,079 pages long, comprising 981 pages of text proper, 97 pages of Notes and Errata and two pages of notes and errata for the Notes and Errata. It’s a novel that requires three bookmarks to read — one for the text, one for the notes and one for the notes for the notes — evanjestalists have dedicated whole summers to reading it.[1] Suffice to say, the font size for the book is small, for the notes tiny and for the notes on the notes excruciating. Your eyes will wince but your IQ will enhance.

Started in 1986, author David Foster Wallace (1962 – 2008) took almost 10 years to complete Infinite Jest — clearly not a man of substantial rest — eschewing an instantaneous rush of cashflow and the potential for marketshare in order to ensure his encyclopaedic tome was bookstore ready.

Set largely on a hillside in Boston, MA, and a mountainside in Tucson, AZ, Infinite Jest relates the gradually converging stories of youngsters training for The Show[2] at the Enfield Tennis Academy, a boarding high school specialising in the inculcation of the arts of a different type of courtship; and oldsters recovering from a range of addictive substances at Ennet House, an benthic rent halfway house. On the cliff in The Grand Canyon State, two spies conduct an epic philosophical conversation about, among other things, the addictive qualities of popular 1970s television program M*A*S*H.

For a book mostly concerned with addiction, tennis, and addiction to tennis, Infinite Jest spends a considerable time riffing on television and film from an artistic or content perspective; entertainment delivery; marcoms[3]; the subscription and network TV industries; the internet, which was inchoate to near insular levels when David Wallace was tapping it out, let alone when it was unleashed; the febrile nature of 24-hours news and its propensity to confect outrage; consumer electronics; the underlying craven nature of the negative political industrial machine; and celebrity culture. Wallace correctly predicts the dire straits now being visited upon traditional mass media, and even one of the primary causes: a revolutionary in-home panel that playbacks entertainments either from a store-bought cartridge or PAYG[4] over a broadband-like network dubbed “pulses”. Because no-one is watching network TV (that industry has collapsed) or willing to invest in pay TV (amalgamated into a choice-less accidental monopoly on the brink) — instead choosing to consume content on their “InterLace-designed R.I.S.C.-grade High Def-screen PCs with mimetic-resolution cartridge-view motherboards”[5], or Teleputers for short or TPs of even shorter. Modern tech start-up mythology holds that Reed Hastings cofounded Netflix after chagrining at a $40 late fee for Apollo 13 (1995) — the other cofounder Marc Randolph called that “a lot of crap”[6] — but who cares? These two were simply settlers (albeit geniuses), DW was the pioneer, near completely envisaging Netflix in the pages of Infinite Jest, just as he foretold the death rattles of conventional television and the tedious morphing of advertising from background and sideways distractions to intrusive, full-on, OTT (quite literally on this website, where new pages are obfuscated by OTP[7] ads, like the Dell one you had to click through (at least on the day of publication)) and altogether depressing manifestations of our society’s unrelenting need for constant, conspicuous, compulsory consumption.

2015: advertising has been commoditised, television is dying, the appetite for media however remains at Everest levels but consumers only want to pay Mariana Trench prices. Twitter bursts with millennials exuding their mindless babble (well, some are cleverer than others[8]) while second screening leadership coups, competition reality TV and/or live sport from some estranged territory. News, reality, sport: the only content programmers can trust to provide eyeballs to sell to advertisers. The more inventive TV types are intent on a confluence of these genres — Abbott v Turnbull[9] a Shakespearean[10] George RR Martinian example — another past future divined by DFW.[11] For the week of 30 August 2015 to 5 September 2015 in Australia, only one of the Top 20 most watched programs on TV was scripted.[12] The other 19 were reality, news and infotainment. Viewers still love scripted programming — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Breaking Bad and OITNB have become cultural phenomena — but so many are consuming these shows outside the confines of licit channels. I have been a card-carrying all-channel[13] subscriber to Foxtel for 14 years and I have never watched an episode of any of those shows on Foxtel. Adapt or die is a mantra being hurled at cabbies, hoteliers, the record industry and many more besides, not least of all Foxtel, which is being beset from all sides by the tyranny of diminishing advertising, increased competition (legal and, well, you know) and a general mood of vitriol.[14]

Australia’s dominant pay TV provider has been pushing back fiercely to the super intelligent nightmare vision of the cord-cutting and cord-nevering future Infinite Jest describes. It has locked up first run exclusives on as much flagship scripted programming as it can find, commissioned its own Great Australian Dramas and opened the chequebook for any sport with the merest popularity not inured to its charms by the Anti-Siphoning List. The battle for relevance has been brutal — witness the descent to petulance during the wholly unedifying NRL rights negotiations, where Rupert Murdoch devolved to a jilted prom date and the Daily Telegraph found itself excoriating rugby league in a most profound case of publishing cognitive dissonance[15] — Netflix and Stan are not going to $10-a-month Foxtel to death without a fight. And into this fetid milieu, Foxtel launched its Hail Mary panacea, the iQ3.

It was Monday 23 March 2015, one day before Netflix launched locally. Not that this had anything to do with it…

“Obviously we’ve got issues with it, but it is in no way reflective of how the launch is going, nor is the inference that we’ve rushed it to market correct,” said Foxtel director of product Michael Ivanchenko.[16]

…and not that the iQ3 is reactionary or responsive in any case: Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein dubbed it “a revolutionary step forward for Australian TV viewers”[17], which seems to imply that Netflix, Stan, free-to-air et al would be adapting to it. Au contraire! The intervening months have shown the only ones doing the adapting are the subscribers, as the simple yet effective UI of Foxtel iQ2 HD was replaced with the single worst consumer technology product I have ever used (and in my 7.5 years as a pro technalist I’ve used a metric bucketload, mostly gratis), let alone paid $134 per month, every ~30 days, monthly, 12 times per year, every ~4 weeks, $1,608 per year, $134 per month for the privilege of being so monumentally frustrated and hate-filled that there were times during the recent Ashes, which I watched through Foxtel Channel 209, that I wanted to deracinate the iQ3 STB and defenestrate it, taking it with it my 50-inch Hisense TV[18] and my NETGEAR (its caps) N600 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit ADSL2+ Modem Router[19], which are connected via HDMI and Ethernet cable respectively.

I am not anti-Foxtel — I actually love it and have done so for some time — and thoroughly enjoy the outstanding coverage provided over a long period of time by Fox Sports. I whooped for joy when it announced it had secured the rights to the 2015 Formula One season and would be showing every race live, ad-free and in HD. All 380 games of the Premier League! NRL, AFL, NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA, ATP: think of any three random letters and chances are it’s a competition being broadcast with aplomb on Fox Sports (or ESPN). There’s a great clutch of music video channels; 24-hour news spanning the full political spectrum; documentaries galore, an abundance of films without discriminations for taste; hours and hours and hours of repeats, repeats, repeats: Foxtel offers a huge amount of content and for most of my custom it’s been serene. So there I am on the couch watching Smidge[20] and Bucky[21] plough through the England (and Zimbabwe and New Zealand[22]) attack on a rare sunny day for the heroes when my aforementioned Hisense screen glitches with a jolt, blasts fuzzy snow then green screens to an error message — “f442: Due to HDCP support not being detected from your TV this program cannot be viewed” — precipitating the iQ3 box resetting itself and returning to the action at Lord’s, but now without audio, which requires the box to be manually turned off and on to get going again. Now imagine that happening EVERY SINGLE TIME you’re watching TV, EVERY 15-TO-20 MINUTES. It is a common problem for select iQ3 users; it’s discussed in some detail on Foxtel’s community blogs, with the heartbreaking conclusion being, “There is no easy way around it and it’s very frustrating but I’m sorry to say it’s here to stay”.[23]

Then there’s the programs you have on Series Link, a great feature carried over from iQs past that automatically records every episode of a specified show as they air. I’ve got popular ABC Sunday morning gabfests Insiders and Offsiders on Series Link and, since I installed iQ3, there has not been a single Sunday where both episodes have recorded in full. Sometimes the recording just doesn’t happen or it does happen but unspecified glitches during the shows’ combined 90 minutes results in significant content losses. Sometimes it records Insiders but not Offsiders. Sometimes Offsiders but not Insiders. Either way, I’m always offside. Just programming the iQ3 to record is laborious to the point of torture. The latency between pressing a button on the Bluetooth remote control and a response from the operating system is not so much an irritating mini lag as a punishing long delay, reminiscent of 1980s intercontinental satellite TV interviews, minus the absurd humour. After four months using the iQ3 I have to trust that, yes, my remote control changing of the channel was received by the STB and the channel will eventually change, and I’ve just got to repress the urge to press the button again, which will add roughly 10 seconds w/r/t my original channel changing goal, as I will have to change back, exponentially growing the latency effect. Then there are the little things: press the i (for info) button and the screen is overtaken by a plethora of information: a supersized channel logo, the show’s title at 72 font size, a vertical row of supersized logos of other channels — a quarter of screen is superimposed with largely superfluous data and imagery — but the single most important piece of information a TV viewer needs to know, the time, is not there. It was on preceding models but now it’s gone. The Foxtel iQ3 is not early and of its day, it is quite literally late and out of time.

Meet Paul: he’s a former banker, sports fiend and newshound. His wife Deb loves DIY programming, Great Australian Drama and competition reality garbage. They have a young family and live in Sydney’s southern suburbs. They are your quintessential Australian middle-class household, the sort of people Foxtel audience development officers list on internal PowerPoint displays under the rubric Target Customer. They’ve had Foxtel for yonks — you need it if you like the content they do and don’t want to persist with temperamental online sport streams or lack the know how to torrent shows — but the end may be nigh.

15 SEPTEMBER
YEAR OF NETFLIX[24]
TRANSCRIPT OF TEXT MESSAGE INTERFACE BETWEEN PATRICK AND PAUL (EDITED SLIGHTLY FOR READABILITY)

Paddy[25]: What are some of your major gripes with IQ3 (sic)?

Paul: Sorry have been in media blackout, ironically because of IQ3’s hopelessness. Will send you a few points later tonight

Paddy: What are you blacking out? The result of the spill?[26]

Paul: Ha! Hayne.[27] But I’ve given up and read about his game.

Paul: Re iQ3: Deb has written down some concerns — intended for stopping me killing myself:

  1. Show has little ‘r’ on TV guide indicating it will be recorded but it never records the show.
  2. Series link randomly misses episodes and then randomly starts recording again.
  3. Sometimes when watching live TV it randomly stops and starts until unit is restarted.
  4. Sometimes sound and image does not match so unit must be restarted.
  5. Delay in moving around the menus.
  6. Unpredictable delay in pressing remote button to action being done.
  7. Long hang in doing anything.
  8. Pause/rewind/ff[28] screens are darkened and the bottom corner is completely obscured.
  9. Sometimes when you select a show in your library the options to delete/keep etc do not appear for a while, you need to go back and select the show again for those options to appear.
  10. Sometimes the image of the show in the library section never appears.
  11. ‘Record me’ appears on the screen of shows that are being watched on playback ie they have already been recorded.
  12. Sometimes unable to watch a show while it is being recorded (from the recording).
  13. Randomly unable to watch back recordings, the ‘play recording’ button does not appear (even after a restart of the system) but it shows ‘recorded on xxxxx’. Usually will return a few days later.
  14. Beginnings of shows recorded on series link are regularly missed, eg Dancing w/t Stars on Ch 7.
  15. Recorded shows regularly say ‘signal loss. Your iQ3 lost power’ and do not record entire show.
  16. Unable to watch selected shows or recorded shows because ‘this channel is having technical difficulties, try back soon’ but no matter how many times you ‘try back’ it never works.
  17. Sometimes the box will not turn on when using the remote; you need to restart the box.
  18. Remote will not work until box is reset.
  19. Movies extremely slow to download (even accounting for download speed).
  20. Movies in alphabetical order under ‘recently added’ but not other menus making them hard to find.
  21. Movie download is showing as 77% but can only watch 20mins.
  22. Message saying ‘upgrade required — you’re not currently subscribed to this channel’ even when you subscribe to them all and this message appears on every channel even free-to-air: restart is required.
  23. Entire shows disappear from recorded menu (do not even appear after a system restart), shows reappear randomly days later.
  24. Sometimes you delete a recorded show but it still appears in your recorded show list.

***

Twenty-four (24) gripes for one customer. It puts Respected Rival Hack Ben Grubb’s backer’s dozen[29] in the shade. And the real tragedy isn’t how devastatingly bad Foxtel iQ3 is, it is how much potential it has wasted. The previous iterations of iQ devices were revelatory. Seamless recording to an internal hard drive; super simple useability that delivered a great UX[30], from the tech savvy [31] natives through to luddites; zero latency from the supposedly inferior infrared remote; the date and time always on screen when your pressed the info button. As each new iQ box was rolled out, the feature set improved and the experience was subtly enhanced. The star is the content, after all, not your interaction with it.

Fox Sports recently covered the US Open Grand Slam tennis event magnificently, significantly better than the very rare times you see tennis on FTA, and in between my iQ3 f442ing out on me, I saw glimpses of brilliance from the heretofore unrealised potential combatants Bernard “Atomic” Tomic and Nick “Wild Thing” Kyrgios, as well as the fading powers of Lleyton “Rusty” Hewitt[32]. Tomic and Kyrgios have the skills but they let themselves down with unforced errors, impatience and capriciousness. Hewitt was brilliant and hard-working if unglamorous in his day and is now being replaced by players who, for the time being, aren’t worthy of carrying his sticks.[33]

iQ3’s potential for greatness was manifest: a significantly improved 1TB hard drive, suggested programming, recording of up to three shows at once while watching a fourth, the ability to turn back TV time up to 24 hours and, perhaps most significantly, access to an enormous library of on-demand TV and films titles for streaming, via either Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.[34] The glitch-ridden UI makes utilising many of these features an unpleasant chore but the hamartia is something altogether different, and completely avoidable: much of the looking back and the catching up, and all of the on-demand streaming, is in SD. As obliquely mentioned earlier, in 1996, when Infinite Jest was published, David F Wallace forecasted that, in the future, everyone would be watching their entertainments in HD. The iQ3 needn’t have followed Netflix’s trailblazing lead into Ultra HD (4K) content delivery but HD is an absolute minimum. Rival SVOD brand Stan offers HD. Quickflix — even beleaguered, trading at 1 cent, please don’t upgrade to iOS 9[35] Quickflix — offers HD. And yet when I scroll, obviously slowly, through the many, many, many attractive film and TV shows on offer for me to watch with near immediacy[36] on my big screen TV through my Foxtel iQ3 STB, it is always with forlorn acquiescence of my inability to actually watch the show, due its anachronistic SDness.

The faithful among us, those married to the fantastic content Foxtel provides, now must wait with forbearance for the expected firmware upgrades to slowly bring the iQ3 up past an IQ of 3 and start fulfilling its PVR potential. If Foxtel can fix the glitches, roll out HD playback and, for Ford’s sake, put the time back on the info screen, then our collective addictions will start festering again. Soon would be good though ‘cause eschaton ain’t far away.

And read Infinite Jest.

NOTES AND ERRATA

[1] Infinite Summer; http://infinitesummer.org/

[2] Association of Tennis Professional (or ATP) Tour, known universally among tennis types as The Show.

[3] Industry argot for marketing and communications, but also encompassing PR, strategy and creative. The sort of thing made accessible by popular ABC television franchise Gruen.

[4] Pay as you go, ostensibly for an individual episode or series, as opposed to the bundling of various eclectic content together for one price, a la cable TV’s historical business model.

[5] (sic); RISC = Reduced instruction set computing.

[6] http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2012/11/12/9-fascinating-things-about-reed-hastings-and-netfl.aspx

[7] On The Page, or maybe Over The Page, I’m not quite sure.

[8] See, for example, this piece of absolute genius from the September 2015 spill (a): https://twitter.com/Daveo_au/status/643379572294090752.

  • (a) Q.v. Note 9 sub.

[9] On 14 September YN (a) Australian PM Tony Abbott was deposed by intraparty challenger Malcolm Turnbull, the third such successful ‘knifing’ in five years to be shown live on TV to a rapturous audience. During this time, there have also been several other failed challenges, receiving similar ubiquitous coverage.

  • (a) Q.v. Note 24 sub.

[10] This particular expression is banned at Good Gear Guide/PCWorld, alongside: reach out, touch base, YOLO (a), soz (b), irregardless (sic), looks to, moving forward, awesome sauce, hashtag, nek minute (sic) (c), swag, said no one ever, youse (sic) (d), savvy, yucky, noms (e), seriously, why would I lie?, dual stereo speakers, online Etailer (sic), sensational, journey, selfie, aluminum (sic), swag/swagger (f), ‘cause, journey (g).

  • (a) You only live once. (i)
  • (b) Sorry
  • (c) I’m reliably informed that ‘nek’ means ‘next’.
  • (d) Australian slang meaning ‘you’, in the plural, as though referring to a group of people, more correctly spelt ‘yous’.
  • (e) Me neither.
  • (f) Appears on the verboten glossary twice.
  • (g) Ibid.
    • (i) Supposedly coined and definitely popularised by Canadian child actor-cum-rap/singer Aubrey (Drake) “Drizzy” Graham in his 2011 song The Motto (featuring Lil Wayne), which peaked at #14 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

[11] In one small scene of Infinite Jest, never referred to again, an Arizona Cardinals player laments having to swoop into the stadium, all avian like, on bungee cords, which is much more terrifying for our vertiginous kicker than the hagiographic amateur theatre performed pregame when he was previously contracted to the New Orleans Saints.

[12] http://www.oztam.com.au//documents/2015/OzTAM-20150830-EMetFTARankSumCons.pdf

[13] Sans the pay-extra foreign language, adult entertainment and horseracing channels, but including, on-and-off, Setanta/BeIN Sports.

[14] Courtesy of RRH Luke Hopewell: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/06/this-is-the-angriest-anti-foxtel-rant-youll-ever-hear-and-its-all-about-piracy/.

[15] Unsure of the respectability of this rival unnamed hack, but it gives you a good idea anyway: http://www.australiannews.net/index.php/sid/235979721.

[16] http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2015/04/foxtel-denies-iq3-rushed-to-market.html

[17] https://www.foxtel.com.au/about/media-centre/press-releases/2015/the-ingenious-iq3-launches-today.html

[18] $900 on special from JB Hi-Fi Chatswood.

[19] Gratis from my good friends at NETGEAR, via its PR company Weber Shandwick.

[20] Steve Smith.

[21] Chris Rogers.

[22] Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes, respectively.

[23] http://community.foxtel.com.au/t5/Foxtel-TV/Foxtel-error-f442/m-p/21037#U21037

[24] With ad-funded TV made defunct by the lack of interest leading to a lack of advertising in Infinite Jest, advertisers have turned to a range of ingenious methods to continue hounding us, the most insidious of which is Subsidized Time (sic), viz Year of the Whopper, Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and, most idiosyncratically, Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile (sic) (a).

  • (a) The (sic) (its itals) is part of that year’s name.

[25] One of many cognomens.

[26] Q.v. Note 9 supra.

[27] You don’t seriously need an explanation of this, do you?

[28] = fast forward.

[29] http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/major-software-bugs-plague-foxtels-netflix-rival-iq3-causing-customer-outrage-20150331-1mccy9.html

[30] = user experience.

[31] Q.v. Note 10 supra.

[32] Sobriquets are ridiculously important in pro Show tennis.

[33] Tennis people always call their racquets ‘sticks’.

[34] 802.11ac, according to RRH Nic Healy, viz http://www.cnet.com/au/products/foxtel-iq3/

[35] http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2015/09/quickflix-tells-customers-not-to-upgrade-to-ios-9-were-not-ready-yet/, again from RRH LH.

[36] The downloading is actually pretty damn quick, thanks to Telstra cable broadband: one thing I demur from Paul/Deb’s gripe list, specifically #19.

One thought on “Infinite Pest: Foxtel IQ3 is an insult to our TV-addicted intelligence

  1. Pingback: 2015 Year in Review — The Farce Reawakens | completepatrick

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s