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75 Channels and Nothing On

by Neena Louise

It never fails to amaze me how many channels are cramming the airwaves these days. How many choices does one need, anyway? And at what cost? Cable and satellite providers seem to think "more is better" and use the number of channels they offer as their main thrust in advertising. They fail to realize quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality.

In my area, there is a dazzling array of programming packages one could buy from the cable company. They range from $17.20 for basic cable (37 channels), to the get-everything package for $52.82 (75 channels). Plus $6 for an extra cable outlet. Plus $6 for the cable box. Plus $2 for the converter that you'll need when they shuffle the channels out of the range of their cable box. Plus installation and connection fees. That's a minimum of $66.87 a month (plus taxes) to receive 75 channels (or, as the cable company would have you look at it: "less than a dollar a channel!"). Let's break down these 75 channels:

  • 12 are in a language I don't speak
  • 5 are info/preview/community
  • 2 are home improvement
  • 4 are learning/documentary
  • 5 are movie
  • 3 are music
  • 7(!) are news
  • 4 are special-interest groups
  • 5 are sports
  • 3 are the same network
  • The rest (25) are various other network and cable channels

I definitely don't need the channels in a foreign language. I don't need five community channels. I certainly don't need 7 news channels and 5 sports channels. Of the 65 channels I currently pay for, I only watch 31. And I could live without 7 of those. That leaves a total of 24. Yet, to receive the twently-four that I really want, I'm forced to pay for the other 41 I don't want!

So where's this "deal"? When I first got cable, I paid $11.07 a month, received 30 channels, and watched 22 of them. I now pay $37.47, receive 65 channels, and watch 24 of them. If you look at it that way, my cable expense has soared over 300%! - more than any other household expense during the same time period.

In this age of digital everything, why, oh why, can't we "pick and pay"? I once wrote a scathing letter to the local cable company asking them just that, and complaining about their latest channel shuffling/dropping and their offer of useless channels I'd be forced to pay for but didn't want. They returned an equally scathing (not to mention extraordinarily condescending) letter saying no system offers pick and pay (liars!) and how much more expensive satellite is and, gee, ma'am, are you stupid or what? Their conclusion was, essentially, "Tough. We're your only choice. Whaddya gonna do about it?" I'll tell you what: I'm going satellite. And I don't mean those little pizza-size dishes, either (which is really just glorified cable); I mean those big honking dishes that receive direct satellite signals and, thus, don't put you at the mercy of some Corporation that picks prices and programming out of the air.

Even if I were to go with a satellite provider, it would be no more expensive (even with the cost of the equipment and installation) than cable, and the satellite companies offer more of a "pick and pay" programming system, saving me the outrage at having to pay for dozens of channels I have no use for. And there are several satellite companies to choose from (as opposed to the lone thug-ridden cable company that I'm currently forced to deal with).

The number of viewers turning to satellite have the cable companies nervous. There are a series of "anti-satellite" commercials in my area, sponsored by the cable company. They allege that satellite is more expensive, more rigid and not a good value when compared to cable. The commercials make me laugh: Run, cable, run! People are sick of paying more and more and more for less and less and less and being at the mercy of your puzzling whims. You shuffle your channels constantly; drop channels people want; add channels people don't want; your rates soar every single year, and you sit there, smug in the knowledge that your customers have little choice. Well, we finally have a choice. Thank goodness.

The cable company seems to feel that digital cable is the answer to satellite. From what I understand, it's difficult to get digital service over current household cable lines (they are insufficient to receive digital signals), thus requiring stringing new cable lines. There wouldn't be an extra cost, but there's a significant amount of digging, stringing and punching of holes (ack!). Not to mention waiting for the installation (in my area, this could be up to 4 weeks) and the old "we'll be there sometime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m." way of scheduling service. After all that, you still have to pay for the programming (which, in my area, consists almost entirely of foreign-language channels). Satellite installation has none of these problems.

Perhaps cable's time has passed, or maybe it's just that cable companies have not yet realized their stranglehold on what people have piped into their homes no longer exists. With deregulation in the telecommunications industry, air travel, power companies, etc., monopolies just aren't tolerated in today's society (observe Microsoft's troubles). Cable companies seem to have realized this a little too late. Now that we have choices about who provides our television channels, the years of being at cable's mercy have disgruntled customers switching services in droves.

Buh-bye cable. Hope you crash and burn in hell. 
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