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Cable, Disconnected

August 11, 2011

During a recent conversation with a deeply respected colleague, I was taken aback to hear him say that many television providers have “contempt” for consumers.  Certainly that would explain the less-than-satisfactory channel selection, the sometimes-iffy customer service, and the prices that inch up like pounds over the holidays.  Then yesterday, I read Ryan Lawler’s well researched article on the shedding of cable customers in Q2 of this year.  Clearly, cord cutters are no longer just those who are raging against the Industry Machine.  The 47 comments (and counting) by visitors who add detail to Lawler’s conclusion illustrate how quickly the cable operators’ value proposition is breaking down.

Many of the comments railed against the available line-up.  The various “packages” offered by almost all of players only make sense when you look at their cash flow.  Operators use popular channels to bootstrap “minority programming”: shows that appeal to a small but enthusiastic audience.  In order for me to receive BBC America, I also have to buy a bunch of channels aimed at little kids, outdoorsy types, and what some networks think of as women (although who these women are remains a mystery to me).  With Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and others continuing to expand their libraries, it’s become easier for viewers to build a highly personalized a la carte menu.  So I expect to see more subscribers at least downgrade their accounts.  Theaters have widened their audience by offering flex tickets and mini subscriptions.  Why can’t cable find a cost effective way of doing the same?

Service complaints were featured in many of the comments to Lawler’s piece.  I know the speed and quality of my provider’s signal never came up when I was picking out my new equipment.  I suppose I’m ready for whenever they get around to sending 1080p at 120Hz , if I live that long.  At least my TiVO is easy to use and does what she’s told.  My poor parents, on the other hand, have a box rented from their operator.  They are on their 5th in less than a year, having experienced problems ranging from the remote not working to the picture freezing.  And they get dinged with a $75 charge for every house call.  They pay for several premium packages, so by Lawler’s account they should fall at least somewhat into desirable customer territory.  Additionally, they are too uncomfortable with the internet to go the wireless route, which in my opinion would make them even more within cable’s target market.  It’s hard to tell from the outside whether this is a training or procedural problem, but it’s obviously a gap in good, smart customer service.

As for the cost creep, I agree with those who used words like “sneaky” in their descriptions.  The name of my service keeps changing.  Each time it’s rechristened, a few more dollars are added to my bill.  My friends who bundled their phone and internet with their cable are getting hurt even worse.  A few are paying double their initial fees.  On this subject, I’m going to bang the same drum I’ve been playing since I launched this blog.  If more of this money went back into developing high-quality content and picture or any clear indication that we were benefiting, I think there’d be less complaining.  But what most folks see is a huge increase in cheap-to-produce reality shows, leading many to conclude there’s nothing on television anyway.

My reaction to all of this is mostly sadness.  We are living in tough times when television should be enjoyable, affordable, and shared.  Yet, when I look at the careers page of the most popular providers, I don’t see any positions advertised that indicate cable is making a purposeful attempt to (dare I say) connect with its customers.  I am prepared to say that at the very least Comcast, Time Warner and their brothers and sisters don’t understand us very well.  Whether this ignorance stems from “contempt” or just living in a cave too long, in practical terms, makes no difference.

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