THE FRONT DOOR — “Hi,” says a smiling face standing in my doorway. “I’m Billy Tom from your favorite cable company, come to fix your problems. You know our motto, Disable Cable is often available.” I let him in and he wanders into the den, looks at my TV and sadly shakes his head. They all do that. Billy Tom is only the latest of a parade of cable repairmen who have come to fix my problems, only they don’t.
Of course, by the time a human being actually shows up at my house, I have gone through the drill, which we all know so well. My TV goes out for no reason. I get the picture but no sound. I call the cable company which opens with, “All of our representative are busy with other customers, but your call is very important to us. So please stay on the line. There may be a wait due to an exceptionally heavy volume of calls.” (I could call at 3.a.m on Christmas morning and hear that same “due to an exceptionally heavy volume.” It means they have a whole lot of angry customers besides me). That puts me on a waiting list. “Your call will be handled in (long pause) 30 minutes, give or take an hour.”
Then I get Akmed in India who tells me to push this button on the remote, then that button, pull out that plug, stand on my left foot, roll over, play dead. I spend 45 minutes talking to some guy who couldn’t fix the problem. In desperation, after all else has failed, the company grudgingly sends out a technician. He’ll arrive sometime between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. either Monday or Tuesday or maybe Wednesday.
Is any other industry or pursuit this incompetent? We may have issues with our gas company or phone firm, even gone one on one with our grocer, but nothing compares with the frustrations of our pay-for-TV operator. You may have cable or a 10-foot-wide dish on your roof or you have simply spliced on to your neighbor’s wires in the dead of night, but whatever the method, we are customers. More than 90 percent of American households pay for TV, according to Nielsen.
We pay well for the service. the current average monthly rate is $86. (I pay $186.12, but that includes cable TV, long distance phone, two computers and the opportunity to wait 30 minutes to speak to Akmed.) Cable companies raise their fees to us by an average of 6 percent a year. A recent study suggested monthly pay-TV rates could reach $200 by 2020. This may explain why in 2011, Comcast CEO Brian L. Roberts was paid $28.1 million. His colleague at AT&T, Randall L. Stephenson, received $20.2 million. The winner: Viacom’s Philippe P. Dauman: $84.5 million.
How many channels do you get? More than you want, I’ll bet. Scanning over my list I see the usual channels I watch: the regulars for news and Fox for unintended comedy. We all say we watch PBS and National Geographic but never mention Playboy or the Norwegian Food Network. Most of us could prune our selection down to a dozen or so channels, and that includes only those in English. The unwanted and expensive result is called “bundling,” whereby if you want, say, ESPN you also have to receive, and pay for, the Archery Network, the Scottish Curling Channel and Dwarf Bowling. None of this explains the Longhorn Network which is available only in Marfa after midnight — on Thursdays. Congress occasionally holds hearings to listen to the American consumer explain why he is getting ripped off this way, then listens to the American cable industry lobbyist who has a checkbook.
There is a cloud on the test pattern, however. By the end of this year, an estimated 4.7 million American households that previously paid for TV will have “cut the cord,” as the expression goes. That’s about 4.7 percent of all subscribers, up from about 3.74 million in 2012, according to a report by the Convergence Consulting Group. By cutting the cord, they are still watching TV, only doing so through Internet-connected options — a computer, mobile device or just the TV itself.
All of this technology is a bit much for me. I like rabbit ears on the top of my 6 by 6 inch black-and-white DuMont. Nevertheless, there is huge news that will change your watching habits. My happy household has been selected to contribute to the Arbitron ratings. I will represent my community so that when I turn on the radio or TV set, I alone speak for most Texans. Network executives and advertisers will carefully inspect my choices to determine what shows are greenlighted (I already speak Mad Avenue-ese) and what shows go on TNT to die.
I only listen to the radio in my car, so Arbitron will learn that half of Texas listens strictly to Willie Nelson CDs. As for my TV tastes, so long the Quilting Network, Nancy Grace and most sporting events that have Roman numerals at the end. Tens of thousands of Texans (me) don’t watch shows about harpoons, Lock Up or any program that allows Newt Gingrich to speak. You’re history and I don’t mean from 9 to 10 p.m. on the History Channel. But you can watch 60 Minutes, Colbert, re-runs of Fawlty Towers and any show with Don Rickles as long as you wish. I’ll watch Downton Abbey if they can insert English subtitles. It’s my civic duty to watch the local news, but Arbitron should know I change channels the moment they show that ever-present yellow police tape around a crime scene.
Oh, good. Billy Tom from Disable Cable says my problem of only getting the picture and no sound is solved. I thank him profusely and he leaves. That night I turn on my TV. I get a great sound — and no picture.
Ashby tries to watch TV at firstname.lastname@example.org