Everybody Hates The Cable Company

One of the great Cold War comedies is “The President’s Analyst” in which James Coburn is a hip Mad Men era shrink who has been tapped to listen to the president blow off steam since there’s no one else he can talk to without fear of leaks that would endanger national security.

Soon spy services from around the world are competing to kidnap Coburn in search of any beans the president may have spilled. But one spooky, unidentified entity is more deadly and implacable than all the others. It turns out to be the phone company and it aspires to global dominance. Coburn realizes all his patients, no matter their various neuroses, have one thing in common. “They all hate the phone company.”

Today it’s the cable company (and the phone company). I am an unhappy customer of Time-Warner Cable. As far as I can tell there are no happy customers. At an earlier address I was an unhappy customer of Comcast. Why does everyone hate their cable company? Let me count the ways.

First, they are close enough to a monopoly to act like one, like Microsoft and other bullying service providers with a captive audience. They are quick to sell you services, but slow to provide them. Bills are often an incomprehensible nightmare. Outages are frequent. Rates rise without warning. Help when you need it is not on the way. You are forced to buy dozens of worthless channels to get the few you covet. And any attempt to deal with the cable bureaucracy degenerates into a Kafkaesque labyrinth. Abandon all hope, ye who enter there.

Some people have had enough and have unplugged. My son and his family get their TV exclusively from a digital antenna for local channels and streaming internet from Netflix, Hulu and Vudu for other movies and shows. They are always a few months or years behind the water cooler conversation, but they don’t have to tolerate cable company abuse and the monthly out of pocket is negligible.

That can’t be said of cable. Mine now costs almost as much as gas, water and sewer, and electric combined. A new unannounced price hike recently blindsided me. Maybe it was actually announced in those leaflets and stray pieces of advertising that accompany my bill, but who reads that debris? Maybe some obscure report from city or county regulators revealed a gouge had been approved, but since the decline of newspapers such news is hard to come by.

In the case of my bill, the Time-Warner pirates jacked up the price from one month to the next by 100% for the starter tier. It leaped 20% for the next tier that contains all the channels you might actually want to watch, another 30% for something called the Variety Pass that I didn’t even know I was buying, and another 20% for other miscellaneous services.

I called what is laughingly described as “customer service” to find out what gives. After talking to a robotic voice, repeating my phone number and name three times and enduring the obligatory wait for the next available customer servant, she came on the line and made me repeat my phone number and name again. Having accessed my account, she told me I hadn’t paid my August bill. I told her I hadn’t received my August bill, but when I did I would pay it. Besides, all I was calling for was an explanation of the increased charges on my bill.

She said she couldn’t possible discuss my bill until I paid my bill. I told her I couldn’t pay my bill until I received my bill. She said I could pay on the internet without waiting for the bill. I told her what she could do with my bill, which may have been a tactical miscalculation on my part since fifteen minutes after hanging up my cable service was disconnected. Vengeance is mine, saith Time-Warner.

It appeared the only way to get an answer (and now to get my service restored) was to pay an in-person visit to the local Time-Warner office, otherwise known as the Eight Circle of Hell (Look it up. Dante knew all about cable company bureaucrats.) I took a number, 613, and joined the rest of the damned to wait my turn. They were on 576 when I arrived. The three employees on duty to handle dozens of forlorn supplicants, chatted among themselves, went in and out of backroom doors, talked on cell phones, applied hand lotion and occasionally deigned to call a new number.

I was about an hour older when 613 finally came up. I would have been a lot older if about half of the intervening number holders hadn’t given up in despair and slunk sadly away. Here’s what I learned when I reached the front of the line.

The lady on the phone who had cut off my service was wrong to have done so, according to the latest customer servant I was now talking to. She may have believed that, or she may just have wanted to keep my business, or she may have seen something postal in my eyes that persuaded her to placate me.

As to why prices went up abruptly without warning, it’s the new policy. The inexpensive rate used to last two years but now only lasts one year. Did that mean I now had to pay the higher rate? No, it meant once a year I had to come to the office, take a number, wait in line, complain about the price hike and then they’d make me a new deal to lower the price hike.

Words fail me, except perhaps to say: “What a way to run a railroad!” Obviously some data-analyst drone at headquarters calculated that some fraction of people will go nuts and defect to DIRECTV or Netflix or nothing. Others will schlep in and pitch a fit, but enough won’t notice the price has gone up and keep paying it to make it worthwhile for Time-Warner to alienate the rest of us.

If a bookstore treated me like this, I’d quit reading. If a grocery did, I’d fast. If a doctor… No wait, doctors treat you exactly like that, or at least their insurance companies do.
So, besides going home and venting, what did I do?

I watched TV, of course. It was back on and I’d paid for it, though the bill still hasn’t come in the mail. But it has been impressed on me that I’m being played for a sap. I eagerly await the day when I can stream what I choose and let the rest of the channels go by. Or until somebody really good at customer service at an affordable price turns up to wipe the floor with Time-Warner. I’m talking to you, Amazon. What’s the hold up?

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