Set-top box – from hacker favorite to disposable product

With digital television, the set-top box also found its way into households that receive their TV programming via antenna (DVB-T or DVB-T2) and cable. Those who have a satellite dish on their roof are used to the small box next to the TV set anyway. But today, the TV receiver hardly plays a role anymore. What happened?

Basically, the set-top box is used to convert the received signals into a TV picture and sound. However, digital television opened up further uses for the TV receiver. Equipped with a hard disk, it provided the end of the video recorder in addition to the DVD. In addition, the current program can be paused and continued at a later time (timeshift). The TV stations also transmit information about their programs, which is displayed by the so-called Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). The program guide on the TV set has always been a thorn in the side of TV magazines.

So overall, the set-top box made the TV evening more convenient – up to a point. Because as soon as users also wanted to watch pay TV, things got complicated. Pay TV is encrypted, whereas ARD and ZDF, for example, broadcast their programs free-to-air. Encryption required a separate set-top box.

High demand for hacking boxes and cracked smart cards

In the early years, for example, the precursors of the pay TV provider Sky could only be received via the d-box. Later, other devices were licensed for pay TV reception, but anyone who wanted to use two or three pay services, for example, had to buy a set-top box for each. The unsightly box tower next to the TV grew.

The set-top box experienced a real heyday in Germany when the encryption system of Sky’s predecessors was cracked. Somehow, everyone knew someone who knew someone who could either manipulate the d-box or get their hands on a hacked smartcard. You could even use them in cheap receivers from the Far East. At that time, the Saturday code changes during halftime of the German Soccer League were notorious. Then you had to search the Internet for the new codes and play them on the box or smartcard.

Integration into TV sets leads to market collapse

However, those days are long gone, and apparently so is the set-top box. The TV set manufacturers have now integrated them and their functions into the TV sets. The box manufacturers’ argument that defective parts in a receiver could be replaced more easily than in a TV set was of little interest. And even if some receivers offered greater ease of use and faster switching times than some TV sets, the convenience of the viewer, who prefers to control everything via a remote control, won out.

With the shutdown of analog satellite reception in 2012 and the switch from DVB-T to DVB-T2 in 2017, receiver manufacturers experienced another boom. But the market is shrinking. According to Statista, only about 1.8 million set-top boxes were sold in Germany in 2020 – fewer than in the previous 15 years.

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Providers do without pay boxes

Today’s set-top boxes are either in the low-price segment or are offered as high-end receivers that are moving in the direction of multimedia centers for the home. Here, such boxes that use Linux as the operating system enjoy a vital fan base. Due to the open operating system, they were also in demand during the times when the encryption codes of pay-TV providers circulated on the Internet. But even otherwise, you have to bring along a bit of joy in tinkering if you own a Linux receiver.

The market slump is also related to the fact that pay TV providers like Sky or cable network operators like Vodafone no longer have boxes to buy and instead market their own receivers. While Sky’s predecessors had to license several box manufacturers due to pressure from the industry, it no longer upsets anyone that there is only one TV receiver for the pay TV provider with Sky Q, which also lags behind other devices in terms of ease of use.

Unsuccessful combinations for TV and Internet

Even streaming still relied on receiver boxes in the beginning. For the movie download service Maxdome, which is now part of the online TV platform Joyn of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE, a separate set-top box was needed in the beginning. However, this was just as unsuccessful as all the other attempts to combine television and the Internet in a single device that could be placed next to the TV. The breakthrough was once again achieved by TV manufacturers, so that today users only need one remote control for TV and streaming. At the end of the day, convenience wins out.