Sunday, June 10, 2007

Cable cabal

Kevin Baker, Weekend Post

A note on my cable bill says the rate will be "adjusted" next month. The last increase, 8%, came not even a year ago. Now another 11%? Canadians' dollars are hard-earned, our leaders always tell us. We deserve accountability. I take up the phone.
"This makes 19% in under a year, yet I can't find where it says what new services I'm getting in return. Can you tell me what they are?"

Several months before, when I called about the last rate increase, the agent said, "There are so many reasons I could give you." I said let's hear them. He went away to ask someone, then came back to say he'd have to go ask someone else. Did I want to wait? Eventually, he told me MTV Canada had been added to my lineup. "Is that all?" I said. "There are so many reasons I could give you," he said, returning to the top of his script.

Later I found out MTV Canada had taken over TalkTV's licence. There was no additional service, just one unwatchable channel in place of another. I had fallen for a switcheroo scam. If they try pulling that again, I am ready. This time, I will get some accountability.

In January, my cable company's CEO, Jim Shaw, explained why he was stopping contributions to the Canadian Television Fund, saying he was waiting for a "statement of accountability." He wanted to know what shows the CTF paid for, how many people watched them, what revenues they earned. He singled out one CTF-supported show as an emblem of the fund's failure, Trailer Park Boys, "with all those guys running around half-naked, swearing and smoking weed." Besides those crimes, the Boys are satellite-and cable-TV thieves who siphon signals from fee-paying subscribers. The rascals are folk heroes, while cable-TV bosses are folk villains. Jim Shaw makes out like a bandit (his compensation package was nearly $6-million in 2006), yet receives none of the Boys' outlaw glory. The injustice would rankle anyone. So I know Shaw's people will understand the importance of accountability and give me the answers I seek. Here's what the agent tells me this time: "Because we're growing so fast, it costs more to get the service out to you guys."

This paragraph is a few calming thoughts so my head doesn't explode: tranquil lake, Boston Legal, fragrant forest, The Office, resplendent alpine meadow, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. There.

It sounds like there's a flaw in your business plan, I tell the agent. Maybe if you stopped growing, you could keep costs down and pass the savings on to customers. Oh, we're committed to growth, she says happily. Which amounts to telling me I can expect another increase any time.

In Alberta's growing cities, no doubt it costs more to hook up new houses in remote subdivisions than new condos downtown. First, there's the gas to drive out there. But my little old house is already hooked up. The service already gets out to me. Why should I pay higher cable-TV fees to subsidize urban sprawl? And why is robber-baron capitalism fine for a cable boss, but "you guys" are supposed to hold hands and cheerfully embrace kindergarten-variety socialism? I am livid.
An ingeniously twisted circle, then: TV is balm for a psyche bruised by everyday life. Excessive cable-fee increases further pummel the psyche; TV-providers' excuses ravage the psyche even more. TV's soothing relief then becomes that much more precious, worth every extra cent.

© National Post 2007

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