Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

3 Cable Catches

There have been very few technological constants for my generation. We were the generation that started with Atari and now has the Playstation 3; the generation that started with mobile phones in shoulder bags and now has the iPhone; the generation that started with dial in BBS’ and now was the world-wide-web. But for all that change there has been once constant, one wondrous bit of technology that still gets in and out of our houses and lives the same way it did when we were kids, one word as essential to our lives as water, power, and lights: cable. We were the first generation who didn’t know about “rabbit ears” and rooftop antennas. Cable was and is the media engine driving the freight train of middle-class suburbia. In a wireless world, cable is a hard line connection to the information and entertainment superhighway of the world - from the time when it was a few dozen channels, to the time when it will be a few thousand. But for all its wonder, cable’s constancy can produce just as much frustration as it does comfort. That magic black wire coming out of wall connecting you to limitless worlds of wonder also connects to a massive media conglomerate which is less functional that the Palin family in November, and often times makes less sense. So, here are 3 things to hate about the cable we love:

1. Addicted to A Lot Of. It’s not as though there aren’t alternatives to cable. As impossible as it may seem, television is still broadcast over the air, and you can still get the internet through your phone line. But the idea of watching only eight network channels feels like living in a communist country with state-run TV stations and dial-up internet feels about as functional as having the internet completely in Chinese. Like it or not, we’ve become accustomed and addicted to the information superhighway, and the information dirt road offered by these antiquated systems almost seems worse than not having any access at all. Not only do I expect a couple hundred channels, I also expect to have the programming guide built into my television and I’d be more likely to pick up an Us Magazine than a TV Guide. If I saw an antenna on a house, I’d also immediately begin looking for pet chickens, a car on cinder blocks and at least one piece of household furniture being used outside. And if I heard anyone using their telephone line to log into AOL, I would also expect them to, at some point, ask me if I could loan them some money to help them with a scheme to wire a lost fortune to a member of the Nigerian royal family who e-mailed them right after they express their concern that eBay might be a scam. Cable has given me a jones for data and data rates as bad as any substance addiction - and even worse, has made me (as the addict) look at everyone who isn’t addicted like there’s something wrong with them. Thanks, cable... now get me my fix.

2. Holding to No One. It’s not often that I have to actually call the cable company. Aside from starting and stopping service, or inquiring about why the latest weather condition has rendered a system that uses underground cabling useless, it’s mostly a hands-free relationship. But on those rare occasions I’m reminded that the cable obviously doesn’t expect many calls either - because they apparently only have one customer service representative for every three states, and my “approximate hold time”, even if I call at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, is going to be about 45 minutes. All of this can be explained by corporate (if not good customer service) policy. But what I cannot get my head around is why the company which provides me access to nearly limitless entertainment options has the same mind-numbing smooth jazz on-hold music that they had in the 1970’s. Seriously, my own cable service has fifty channels of just music in almost every conceivable genre, and yet when I’m stuck on hold for the better part of an hour, I’m forced to listen to music that sounds like it was compiled from the trash bin behind an “easy listening” AM radio station. This is like going to Sony corporate headquarters and being forced to watch TV in their lobby on a black and white tube set that takes ten minutes to warm up after you turn it on. C’mon cable, if you’re selling entertainment choices, how about providing me some when I’m forced to spend an hour on hold just to tell you I’m moving.

3. Window Stopping. I’m still not quite certain why initiating cable service requires an on-site visit, because they can damned sure turn it off remotely (try not paying your bill if you don't believe me). Personally, I suspect that the cable-installers union has some sort of dirt on the cable company executives (e.g. the sweetheart deal they have with the “hold muzak” folks) which is keeping them involved in the installation process - because from what I can tell, all they do is connect the wall to your TV, call into the office (which is who really turns it on) and then asks you if you need any help setting your TV up. And for all of this “work” you get to pay 60 bucks. To make any more doing any less, I’m pretty sure you’d have to start taking some clothing off. But what is truly annoying about this “service call” is the scheduling of it. For every other conceivable home service, you can schedule an hour during which you can expect the service provider to arrive. But for cable, you get to select a four hour window, which you can expect the cable provider to arrive approximately 30 minutes after it concludes. If the rest of us were that incapable of planning our time, we’d be fired, alone and/or hungry. Don’t believe me? Try giving your boss, your significant other or your favorite restaurant a four hour window for when you plan on showing up. There’s no better indication that cable is giving us a product we can’t live without than the fact that we actually put up with this as “customer service”.

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No matter how we may rage against it, we are a culture of consumption, excess and addiction. And as our addictions have shifted, changed and matured, the truly successful have been those in the best position to peddle it to us when our social curiosities blossom into full-on cultural shifts: big tobacco, big pharma and now, big data. The newest generations consume data at an exponentially higher rate than any before them, multitasking has become the status quo, and the inability to receive input from more than one source is antiquated to the point of being a cognitive handicap. As our data appetites have grown in both volume and variety, cable has been there, always willing to provide us a new or additional serving, albeit at a price. For all the unsavory, inexplicable and horrible things about it, cable offers our drug of choice in its purest and most potent form - and like any other drug dealer, they do it with all the corporate style of a velour track suit, ostentatious jewelry and an over-tinted windows. But as we gather reasons to hate them, perhaps we should wonder which we hate more: the billion dollar fat-cat company that irresponsibly feeds our info-jones, or just how much we need them?


Jen and Tonic said...

You took the words right out of my mouth with point# 3. Comcast's window is a ridiculous 4 hours (up here) and even THEN they can't be on time.

Kerry said...

Before I moved to the land of frozen tundra, I expected the channel guides, 200+ channels, and the ability to DVR when ever I living without for over 3 years now- I have learned to accept what I do not have. Maybe one day in the remote local where I reside they will bring the real cable TV to me. Yet I do not look forward to the long hold times and price gouging, until then I will watch the few local channels that I can get and I will continue to enjoy living in the state where beauty surpasses anything that I can watch on cable!
Thanks again for a great read Glenn! I enjoy reading your posts each week!

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