customer service

Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

Long-time readers will know that I am not averse to contacting companies to complain about bad service that I receive. This isn’t a particularly fulfilling hobby as you very rarely get any kind of satisfaction. But recently it’s becoming even less satisfying than before. I’ve noticed that email conversations with customer service reps are becoming more and more drawn out as many of them seem less and less capable of understanding the issues that I am raising. It can often take a couple of rounds of email before they are clear what I’m talking about. And I’m pretty sure it’s not me describing things badly.

Here’s an example.

Last week the BBC showed an abbreviated version of Leonard Cohen: Live in London. I missed it as it was first broadcast, so over the weekend I tried to catch up with it on iPlayer. We have Virgin Media, so we can watch iPlayer content through our V+ box. I found the programme and started to watch. I didn’t last long though as the aspect ratio of the programme was wrong. The programme had been filmed in 4:3, but the iPlayer has stretched it to 16:9[1]. This meant that everyone everyone appeared fatter than they should be. I know that many people are used to watching television like this, but to me it renders a programme unwatchable.

I wrote to the iPlayer support team explaining the problem. Here’s what I wrote:

The version of “Leonard Cohen – Live in London” which is currently available on iPlayer on Virgin Media is in the wrong aspect ratio. It appears to be a 4:3 broadcast which has been stretched to 16:9. Everyone therefore seems to be far too fat and the programme is unwatchable.

I think that’s clear.

This morning I got a reply from them. Here’s what they said:

I understand you’re unhappy with the size of ‘Leonard Cohen’ on BBC iPlayer.

The bit rate varies per programme and is dependent on the amount of changes per video frame. For example, a programme such as ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Leonard Cohen’ will be at a higher rate than a Current Affairs programme (where a presenter is fairly static in the frame).

Considering the above information:

The average file size for a 30 minute streamed programme is around 110MB. The average file size for a 1 hour streamed programme is around 215MB.

I appreciate you may feel differently on this matter and I’d like to assure you that I have registered your comments on our log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for BBC iPlayer and commissioning executives within the BBC, and their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Nothing in there at all about aspect ratios. They seem to have assumed that I’m talking about the size of downloaded programmes. Which is strange as I specifically mentioned the Virgin Media version of iPlayer which doesn’t support programme downloads.

I can see three explanations:

  1. The person genuinely misunderstood what I was asking about and answered the question to the best of her ability. In which case she needs better training in the products that she is supposed to be supporting.
  2. The person didn’t read my mail carefully and just sent a reply that looked like it might address the issues I was talking about. In which case she needs to read email more closely. Perhaps the iPlayer support team needs more people so they have time to read messages and write replies carefully.
  3. No-one read my email and some automated system sent a canned reply based on some (obviously flawed) keyword matching.

I know I shouldn’t waste my time, but I’ve had another go at explaining exactly what the problem is and why this reply didn’t address any of my issues. Let’s wait and see what happens.

But it shouldn’t be like this. Speaking to customer service shouldn’t be like banging your head against a brick wall. People should know the products they are supporting and they should want to give the best service they can. It’s becoming far too common that customer service replies appear to be dashed off as quickly as possible in the hope that no-one will actually bother to read the reply. Either the support team don’t have the training to properly support their products or they are overworked and don’t have time to do a proper job.

Either way, it’s all very frustrating.

The BBC showed the Leonard Cohen concert again over the weekend. I recorded it on my V+ box. It was broadcast in the correct aspect ratio. I enjoyed watching it very much.

[1] I like to call this “Dixonsvision” in memory of the sadly-missed shop which used to insist on demonstrating all of its widescreen TVs this way.


Recording TV Revisited

It’s over two years since I wrote my piece on ways to record TV programmes. Quite a lot has changed in those two years, so I thought it was worth writing an update.

The biggest change for me is that at home we’ve dragged ourselves into the 21st century and have stopped recording programmes on VHS tape. We currently have two digital video recorders and together with TV on demand services and internet “services” they have revolutionised the way we watch TV. Here’s what we currently use.

V+ box from Virgin Media. This is great. Because it comes from my cable TV provider, it’s completely integrated with their services. We have access to an eight-day programme guide and setting a recording is as simple as pointing at a programme in the programme guide and pressing the record button. The box has three cable decoders in it, so that you can record two channels whilst watching a third. It also enables you to easily record all programmes in a given series. It also allows you to pause and rewind live broadcasts. The only slight downside is that it has a relatively small hard disk so you can only record eighty hours of programmes. So far this hasn’t been an issue, but I can see it being a problem if we go on holiday for a while.

Commercial DVR. Before Virgin released the V+ box we bought an off-the-shelf digital video recorder. As it wasn’t specifically made for Virgin, it didn’t integrate quite so well with their services, but it did have a good programme guide and recording programmes was pretty simple. It has a far larger hard disk than the V+ box and could record up to three hundred hours of programmes (although I suspect some of that improvement is down to the fact that we were recording programmes in a lower quality format). It’s possible to move recordings from the V+ box to the DVR, so that’s one way to get round the 80-hour limitation on the V+ box. The downside to this, however, is that transfers take place in real time. So moving a two hour film takes two hours. One popular approach in this area is a DVR box that has a built-in Freeview decoder. I’ve never used one of these but I know a number of people that are very happy with them.

TV On Demand. I believe that Virgin Media has one of the most comprehensive TV on Demand services in the UK. This falls into two categories. Firstly, there is the Catch-Up TV section where you watch shows that were on in the last seven days. This covers BBC and Channel 4 broadcasts (along with a few smaller channels that I can’t remember). There were a few glitches early on when popular programmes were missed off the listings, but they seem to have fixed most of those problems now and you can pretty much guarantee that anything you want to watch from the BBC or Channel 4 will be on there. Then there’s the TV Choice section where they have hundreds of old TV shows available. Again, there’s a lot of old BBC and Channel 4 stuff there, but they also have deals with a number of US channels so you can watch old seasons of things like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Lost.

Bittorrent. If I forget to record something and it’s not on Catch-Up TV, then there’s always the internet. When I last wrote about this I pointed out that not all shows were available as you’re relying on the generosity (and TV tastes) of the people who share their recordings. But I can’t remember the last time I looked for a programme and didn’t find it. Oh, there’s one time that I rely on bittorrent. Virgin Media still aren’t carrying the Sky basic channels (following on from their contract dispute a year ago) so if there are US programmes that are on Sky One then I get them from bittorrent. Currently the only programme I do this for is Lost.

iPlayer/4OD. The BBC and Channel 4 both have their own online catch-up TV services. I think that ITV has one too, but I watch ITV so rarely that I’ve never tried to look for it. Both the BBC and Channel 4 services were originally Windows-based systems and therefore useless to me. However the BBC now has a Flasg streaming version available and I’ve used that a couple of times. The Channel 4 stuff is exactly the same material that is available through Virgin’s TV on demand service, so I never have a need to use it.

So that’s an overview of the systems that I use to record TV currently. I’m pretty sure that most people who I know use some combination of these technologies. The main point of this technology is to avoid missing programmes that I want to watch but as a side-effect I’m completely ready for the digital changeover (the three cable tuners in the V+ box mean we never watch terrestrial broadcasts) and we also have access to HD channels (not that there’s much HD content available in the UK yet).


BBC Radio iPlayer

The BBC Radio Player is no more. The Listen Again streams have all been rebranded to be part of the iPlayer. See this page for more details.

But it doesn’t look like very much has changed. From an initial glance it seems that my BBC streams pages are still being built – so my HTML parsing code is still working. That’s probably a nice demonstration of the power of CSS. I’ll have a closer look over the next few days and make sure that it’s all still working as expected.

Of course, the initial idea for the BBC streams pages was to make a place where it was easy to find all of the BBC’s radio streams on one page as the BBC didn’t have such a page themselves. It’s possible that this change may have also added a more easily searchable catalogue page which would render my pages redundant.

I’ll poke around and let you know what I find.


BBC iPlayer launch: The first 14 days

Martin Belam has some fun with his crystal ball.


iPlayer Announcement

It looks like the BBC are ramping up to make an announcement about the iPlayer later today.

I’ll link to the press release just as soon as I can find it on their site.

Update: Here it is. Looks like the iPlayer officially launches today.

Update: I can’t read properly. It doesn’t launch today. It launches in a month’s time. On July 27th.