Cable a la Carte Anyone?

When The Curmudgeon’s cable modem is down and his access to the internet disappears, he calls his cable company (Comcast) to register his dismay and seek help.  As often as not, entering his phone number – the mechanism the cable company uses to identify callers – elicits a message to the effect of “We’re experiencing an outage in your area.  Our technicians are working on the problem and your service should be restored shortly.”

The cable company’s technology is that good:  it can respond to The Curmudgeon’s question without him even posing it, armed with nothing more than his telephone number.  Pretty impressive.

When The Curmudgeon’s lack of service is not related to a general outage, he waits his turn briefly – for all of the complaints about cable companies’ poor service, he has never spent much time in “hold hell” – speaks to a technician, and by giving his name and address or telephone number, that technician can call up a screen on his computer and see a visual record of The Curmudgeon’s service (or lack thereof).

“Yes, Mr. Curmudgeon, I can see that your service is down.”  He can see it – from his end.  Without The Curmudgeon even telling him.  Again, very impressive.

In fact, the customer service representative can often see more.

“I see that your service is occasionally dropping off for a few minutes at a time.  Have you noticed that?”

Yes, Mr. Service Representative, The Curmudgeon has – and he’s not too happy about it.

Again, the cable company’s technology is that good:  it can see The Curmudgeon’s problem without him even explaining it, armed with nothing more than his telephone number.

When the service is running right and The Curmudgeon directs his clicker to a station number that features a premium cable channel – he does not subscribe to any premium cable channels – the screen is blank.  He’s not paying for it, so he doesn’t get it.

The cable company’s technology is that good:  it knows who’s watching, knows what they’re paying for and what they’re not, and is smart enough not to give him what isn’t his.  Seems pretty fair – and again, pretty impressive.

The cable company also offers a feature called “On Demand” (The Curmudgeon has seen this in homes other than his own; his particular cable package does not include this service).  By pressing a few buttons, a customer can summon any one of literally hundreds (or is it thousands?) of television programs and movies.  Some are free, some cost money.

The cable company’s technology is that good:  with a few clicks of a button, a customer can summon almost anything to his television screen.  The next month’s cable bill never includes a charge for a free program and never fails to bill you for what you purchased.

This gives rise to an obvious question:  if the cable company’s technology is this good, why can’t it sell its customers any networks we want, omit any networks we don’t want, and charge us only for what we choose?  Why is this not like a restaurant where you look at the menu, choose what you want, and then pay for what you choose?  Why can’t we have cable a la carte?  Why must we pay for the mac and cheese even though everyone knows we are lactose-sensitive?

The cable companies have been asked this question more than once, including by Congress.  They typically dismiss such inquiries, offering a mush-mouthed excuse about not having the technical capacity to do this.

We know this is nonsense.  And they know we know.  And they know we know they know.

On occasion, the cable companies will offer another explanation:  that unless they offer a broad range of programming that may include networks that some of their customers don’t want, new programming will never have an opportunity to break into the cable lineup.

While on the surface this may make seem plausible, it’s an argument that ultimately doesn’t pass the smell test.  New networks have always struggled to be offered by cable companies; some – the NFL Network comes to mind – even go to court to force cable companies to offer them.

But despite these struggles, new networks appear all the time – because those networks work at it.  (Or, as is increasingly the case, they are owned by the cable company and get a free ride.)

In the past, The Curmudgeon distinctly recalls commercials for a cable channel wannabe that beckoned, “Tell your cable operator you want E Entertainment television.”  That seemed to work out pretty well for the E people.  The same is true of MTV:  there may not be a cable system in the country that doesn’t offer MTV, and MTV’s campaign for acceptance – “I want my MTV” – may have been of a higher quality than any programming the network has ever offered and may be more memorable than anything that has been shown on its air since then with the possible exception of Adam Curry’s hair.

The Curmudgeon also recalls, in the past, his cable operator offering free weekend “previews” of premium cable networks, the theory apparently being that if we like what we see during a free weekend of Showtime or HBO, we might be willing to pay for those networks.  Nothing prevents cable operators from offering previews of aspiring cable networks to their viewers and then offering those viewers the option of subscribing to networks they like.  It’s called marketing, and it’s something most businesses do constantly instead of forcing unwanted products down their customers’ throats.

But cable companies don’t need to bother with such niceties.  They don’t offer their customers true choice in channel selection because they are mostly a monopoly, blessed with the official imprimatur of government (which permits them to lay their cables pretty much wherever they please) and they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.  They offer a service and we can take it or leave it.  They offer products and we have to pay for them whether we want them or not.

Why must The Curmudgeon pay for Lifetime television for women?  Why must The Curmudgeon’s 79-year-old father pay for the Food Network when the only kitchen that interests him is run by Chef Boyardee?

We must tolerate this because cable operators are greedy and have made enough political contributions to persuade elected officials to turn a blind eye to their un-American approach to selling their products.  Consequently, they believe they can respond to customer complaints about prices and service by pointing to the variety of programming they offer – even if we don’t want all that variety.  Customers’ preferences do not matter at all; they have no place in the decision-making of avaricious cable company executives.  As much as cable companies despise their satellite television competition, they can always point to those competitors and tell us “If you don’t love us, you can always get a divorce and marry them” – even though satellite is not an option for many people.

There is a great tendency in our society – a tendency The Curmudgeon generally frowns upon – to declare that in such matters, we should “let the market decide.”  In this case, that seems appropriate:  the market – in this case, the public – should be permitted to vote with its dollars and patronage which cable networks should thrive and which should struggle or even die.  THAT is how markets are supposed to work.

But cable companies don’t need to worry about, or even think about, anything as insignificant as markets and customer choice and pleasing their customers.  They are monopolies, they have paid our elected representatives a lot of money to maintain that monopoly, and the customer be damned.