Turn off, tune out, drop in

In January of last year I sent a letter to Comcast, my cable TV provider, complaining about the removal from my “premium” cable service of five premium channels. (The letter is reproduced at the end of this post.) I received an unsatisfactory reply. It was the last in a string of insults, from exorbitant monthly fees (in excess of $100) to crappy image quality full of digital compression artifacts.

Compounding my cable TV complaints was the fact that I seldom actually got to watch anything. Having two small kids and a long daily commute while both parents (try to) work full time has that effect. When I did get some time to watch TV, I worked through a gigantic TiVo backlog. The Sopranos and Shield episodes that I watched were more than a year old when I finally watched them.

Which got me thinking: if I don’t watch things until they’re stale anyway, why do I even need cable TV? All the movies I could want to see, and most of the good TV shows, get released on DVD sooner or later; and a Netflix membership costs about one-eighth the combined total of Comcast “Digital Platinum” and TiVo.

It was an obvious decision to make, but I dragged my feet for a long time. Except for a pauper year or two in college, I’d had cable TV almost continually since 1976. I’m also a considerable movie buff. Give up cable, just like that? What would I do when I feel the urge to channel-surf at 12:30am? And what about dumb little guilty pleasures like Unwrapped which, even if it is ever available on DVD, I knew would never rise to the top of my Netflix queue?

Though it took another eight months, and Andrea doubted I’d ever actually go through with it, in the end simple economics won out, and we’ve now been cable-free for almost a year. At the beginning it was hard, as with kicking any habit, but only very briefly. In a year, the only time I’ve really missed having cable was for the Superbowl. Meanwhile, thanks to Netflix, I’ve recently watched entire seasons of Deadwood, Veronica Mars, and I Dream of Jeannie; and movies such as Munich, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, MirrorMask, and much more. There’s no live sports and there’s no channel surfing; and while you might linger guiltily on the latest Emanuelle movie on Skinemax when channel-flipping, you’re not very likely to bother actually renting it. But in all other respects it’s as good as cable. Better, in a lot of ways, because there are no commercials and no wading through junk you don’t want to see.

Now that we’re off the pop-culture grid, as it were, it’s strange to see it from the outside. It’s a tinfoil-hat cliché, easily dismissed, to say that the establishment controls the populace through television. Anyone with a little media savvy can recognize TV’s propaganda and soothing pap for what they are and claim to be immune, or at least aware. But having stepped out of that stream I’m astonished at just what a blatant barrage of never-ending manipulation TV really is. Savvy or not, you can’t fully appreciate it while you’re in it. Even though I seldom watched anything but the best-quality movies and TV shows, the barrage still seeped in through the cracks: the commercials, the network “bumpers,” the pop-ups in the corners and margins of the screen, the glimpses of other programs. And while it is easy to recognize and dismiss the obvious propaganda and pap, there are a thousand more subtle ways in which your consent is being manufactured. I don’t mean to allege a vast mind-control conspiracy; it just seems to be what you get when you organize government, commerce, and mass media the way we have.

So don’t kill your TV, exactly, but do take total control of what you see on it. Cancel your cable. Keep your money. It may seem right now like you can’t live without it (“How can one insulated wire bring so much happiness?” –Homer Simpson), but if you make it to the other side I promise you’ll wonder what took you so long.

And now that I’ve written that, if we lose the fight for net neutrality, the telecoms may arrange for this blog post to disappear into /dev/null.


Here is the letter I sent to Comcast early last year.

I’m a subscriber to Comcast Digital Cable at the “Platinum” level of service, which includes all premium channels. Recently I learned that five of those channels have been removed from my lineup. They were:

  • Encore True Stories East (527)
  • Encore Action East (529)
  • More MAX East (564)
  • Showtime Extreme East (581)
  • The Movie Channel Xtra East (592)

Previously I had 49 premium movie channels, now I have 44, so this was a 10.2% reduction in service.

When I called Comcast Customer Service to complain, you tried to persuade me that this is not a reduction in service at all. Each of the removed channels, you explained, is the east coast feed of another channel whose west coast feed I still receive — the same programs, shifted by three hours.

But that argument is not valid. At this moment, for example, Encore True Stories East is showing Quiz Show, while Encore True Stories West is showing Gangs of New York. If I sat down at the TV right now and I still received both channels, I could choose to watch either one; but now I can only watch Gangs of New York. My choices are therefore fewer than before. Yes, I could choose to wait three hours and watch Quiz Show on the west coast feed, but by then I may be sleeping, or busy, or watching something else.

You also explained that the channels were removed to make room for others, such as the DIY network and WGN. But these are not premium movie channels and no one can argue they are comparable in value to the channels they supposedly replaced.

Comcast has the right to choose what channels to include in its service. But if you remove channels that I’ve been paying for, then you must also reduce the rate you charge me.

My channel lineup continues to include both the east and west coast feeds of some premium movie channels, such as HBO. But if it’s Comcast’s policy that one feed is equal to two, I’m concerned that there may be further uncompensated service reductions in the future.

Finally, I’ve just learned that the cost of Comcast’s “Platinum” service is about to go up by three dollars per month, or about 6%. Previously I was paying about $1.04 per channel for my premium movie channels. Now, between the service reduction and the rate increase, I’ll be paying $1.23, effectively an 18% increase.

I insist that Comcast restore my lost service or reduce my rates proportionately.

6 thoughts on “Turn off, tune out, drop in

  1. dkuznick

    I think the main reason I still keep cable is to watch Celtics games (and I watch most of them), High Stakes Poker and the occassional HD show. Other then that, you’re right about not needing cable anymore. Of course, by my logic, I should drop HBO (remember when they’d only broadcast a few hours a day? And Mother, Jugs and Speed and Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother were the things they showed over and over?). Sigh, addict.

  2. bobg Post author

    remember when they’d only broadcast a few hours a day?

    I remember more than that. For a while, the first thing I’d do after getting home from school each day was to switch on HBO. At that time of day it wasn’t broadcasting any programming, only a static text display listing the evening’s schedule or showing a copyright notice or something. The display was unchanging — mostly. But at a particular time each day shortly after I got home, the screen would go dark, there would be a couple of electronic chirps (to signal a tape change?), and I’d get a little thrill of anticipation. Suddenly a music video would come on! This was years before MTV. Undoubtedly very few people ever saw these proto-videos, aired as they were entirely without any kind of fanfare or promotion. Some of them were very cool. No one even knew what a music video was, unless you happened to be “in the know” as I felt privileged to be.

    As soon as the song was over, the display would revert to a boring program listing again, like a video Brigadoon.

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