New Sky Box leaves a trail of frustration and a broken promise

New Zealand Herald sports columnist Chris Rattue called the new Sky Box “an absolute dog” but I think that is highly disrespectful to our canine companions. I’ll dispense with the metaphors and simply call it what it is: A complete disaster.

In short, the box is a product still in development and it should never have been released until its manifold software and design shortcomings had been fixed.

If Sky had labelled the box a beta version, customers would have been able to make informed choices on whether to take on the new equipment now or to wait for the ‘gold’ release version. That didn’t happen.

The warning signs were there: It was promised, then pushed out, promised, then pushed out. Finally, it was released when the delays were starting to raise questions in the marketplace.

A month before its release, The Spinoff’s Rec Room editor, Chris Schutz, was given a box to trial and his verdict after two weeks was that “it still doesn’t feel ready for release”.

Yet, in April it was released, accompanied by a statement from Sky chief executive Sophie Moloney that it was “so great to have our cool boxes in customers’ homes”. She added: “It’s been quite the journey with a few challenging obstacles along the way.”

If she thought the obstacles had been cleared away, she could not have been more wrong. The bugs and operational shortcoming of the new Sky Box were soon obvious to anyone – me included – silly enough to opt for the new kit.

I was bigger fool than many because, although I had been a Sky subscriber since its days as a terrestrial service, I had thrown away early accounts when we moved from the house where that UHF antenna had been installed. Sky’s records went back only to our move to a new house in 2005 so I could not prove eligibility for a free box. Like an idiot, I paid up. Worse, I followed instructions and returned the old sky box.

I took delivery of the new box in May and a significant shortcoming soon became obvious. I have impaired hearing and closed captioning is sometimes necessary for me to fully understand what is being said, particularly on dramas where poor enunciation and regional accents tend to faze me. Closed captioning – fully available on the old box – was not available on the new box.

I contacted Sky, to be told a fix for closed captioning was in the pipeline. There have been several fixes but none included captioning. I enquired several times and was thanked for my patience, which was wearing thin. My patience ran out and I was planning to write this column in early August. However, I noticed that Sky’s annual results would shortly be announced and decided I should wait in case the announcement included news on Sky Box fixes.

Sure enough, in an interview with Chris Keall in the New Zealand Herald on August 24 following the announcement of an adjusted profit of $56.7 million, Sophie Moloney announced a round of fixes that would be implemented the following Wednesday and be automatically installed. That fix, she told Keall, would include closed captioning.

A day after the promised fix I went to the accessibility settings (don’t ask how I got there – it’s complicated) and sure enough I found “captions”. It offered me various display styles for closed captions, which were available in languages from Afrikaans to Українсвка (that’s Ukrainian), plus Arabic and a range of Asian scripts. Encouragingly, it told me “Captions will look like this”. Did they appear on any programme? No.

I contacted Sky to ask how to activate closed captioning. The reply, after thanking me for my patience (again), was that closed captioning was not available on the new Sky Box. When, I asked, would it be available? The reply was “soon”.

Sky places an infinite number of o’s in the word ‘soon’. Apparently, there is now no finite date.

It is abundantly clear that there are technical issues with captioning that Sky has yet to surmount. Why it is so difficult I can’t imagine, because Netflix – which I access through the new Sky Box – provides closed captioning on every programme I watch.

I admit that closed captioning affects only a proportion of the viewership (although my teenaged grandson uses it to help him understand regional accents on tv programmes and NZ on Air surveys show it is popular with migrants) but the Sky Box problems do not end there – far from it.

I have encountered numerous issues that detract from the service that Sky should be providing. Some are software bugs, which presumably can be fixed. Others are the result of poorly thought through design and untested assumptions.

I have fast-forwarded through an advertising break and returned to normal speed to continue watching a programme, only to find a blank screen. I have had to back right out of the programme and restart it to continue viewing. On other occasions, reverting to normal speed has taken me back to the beginning of the programme I was watching.

I have selected channels that I know are part of my subscription, only to be presented with the message “To perform this action, please upgrade your Sky subscription”. When I go back to Home and cycle back through the various stages I get access.

Then there is the TV guide.

On the old Sky Box there was a picture-in-picture facility that automatically allowed me to watch a programme while scrolling through the guide. Now I have to choose one or the other. Picture-in-picture is not available on the guide (or if it is, I am damned if I can find it). That gives new meaning to ‘enhancements’.

The new guide is harder, not easier, to read. And navigation requires a greater number of steps, some of which require mind-reading skills. For example, a button at the top of the screen says ‘All programmes’ and, sure enough, the guide below contains all of them, Only when curiosity gets the better of you and you laboriously click your way up to it do you realise that underneath it is where you find the filters for different programme types – news, sport, documentaries and so on.

Ah, but you could choose ‘Browse’ which takes you to a graphic interface that is a superb example of Ellis’ Law. This is a theorem I created for the Sky Box which says that every graphic representation of a programme on the new box is at the expense of four other programmes that would be displayed in the old box’s text-based format. The ‘scroll down’ function on the new remote will be the first to wear out.

Or perhaps it will be the ‘go back’ button. There is a lot of going back on the new box because the minimalist remote has ceded much of the functionality to the screen in front of you. Most of that functionality is achieved – when it is working – through graphic interfaces that are there not because they are more efficient than text but simply because they are technically possible. They are triumphs of form over function.

Forget functionality, the remote is a thing of ergonomic beauty – so slim and bevelled. It’s a pity that this quest for style has compromised the multi-function wheel (up, down, and sideways are instantly interchangeable), has limited the number of button functions (although one button appears to have no function at all), and has damaged the self-esteem of those who (apart from fumbling with hopelessly small keys) keep dropping the damned thing.

It is all too easy to select one thing only to find yourself moved sideways or up or down on the menu or into a programme you have absolutely no desire to see.

But who needs a remote? The new Sky Box comes with Google’s bounteous voice command system. I tried it.

I pushed the Google symbol and said in a loud and carefully modulated voice: “Show me news programmes”. After a brief whirligig, I got the response: First I was taken to YouTube (owned by Google), then to a Maple Leaf, and finally to an announcer intoning “Welcome back to our programme ‘Canada Migration.” Goodness, I thought, that worked well (or words to that effect).

I think I next asked it to take me to Marae, which was screening on TV1 at the time. I found myself looking at a Google map of Auckland and directions from my home to Orakei Marae.  Perhaps, Google had a new take on destination viewing.

I forget the medical term for ‘doing my head in’, but the new Sky Box was seriously affecting my mental health. Perhaps that is why (after much button pushing) I found myself is the diagnostic section of the system. The only meaningful diagnosis I found was that the signal strength was okay. I kind of figured that for myself because the bloody thing was working.

Eventually I found my way to ‘client status’. Good, I thought, this might tell me whether everything is correctly set up. This is what it told me:

User interface it is not, and all the other diagnostic information was similar technobabble of the sort one might find on software during its early development phase. And that is exactly where the new Sky Box appears to be.

Sky is testing the patience of this long-term loyal customer and I am certain I am not alone. The TVNZ+ and 3Now streaming services, together with Netflix, are offering most of the services found on Sky. If news and sport migrated, I would be looking very seriously at cancelling my Sky subscription. That decision would be influenced in no small measure by the quality of the new Sky Box.

Footnote: After writing this commentary I consulted with my brother’s dog Cosmo, who says not all dogs are created equal, particularly that bitch up the road. I have his permission to agree with Chris Rattue: The new Sky Box is an absolute dog.


A bouquet to the Otago Daily Times for its ‘Houses of Horror’ investigation which has resulted in the government sending a team to investigate living conditions in 11 boarding houses in Dunedin.

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