Tuesday, November 25, 2014

More bad behavior from your friendly neighborhood cable company

There's another flight going on between Viacom and a cable provider. Suddenlink, a major provider for much of the middle of the country, has recently dropped all of by a calms basic cable channels. This includes big names such as MTV, Nickelodeon, TVland, and Comedy Central. In Their place Suddenlink has scheduled some decidedly second-tier alternatives. Fans of Jon Stewart now have to make do with Jon Lovitz.

The story hasn't gotten a lot of attention (as often happens when you're on Central Time), but it's worth digging into if you're trying to keep up with the media landscape. It also ties into our ongoing rabbit ears thread.

Having lost most of the cable channels he regularly watched, a friend of mine recently called up Suddenlink and tried to downgrade his service. If you've been following the news you probably know what's coming next. He was immediately referred to a "specialist" who spent the next half hour badgering him ("why don't you want to get the best deal?").

At one point my friend (who has suffered through many of my tirades on the subject) said he was thinking about going over to an antenna. That was largely a bluff -- between terrain and distance to a broadcast tower, he probably wouldn't get very good reception unless he put up quite an antenna -- but the response was interesting. The specialist told him that going to over-the-air television would mean giving up HD.

Like I said, my friend had heard more on this topic than a reasonable person would care to so he knew this simply was not true -- not only can you get HD over the air; the quality is often better than what you get from cable -- so he challenged the company rep on this point and got him to back down to a "I'm pretty sure you can't get HD." My friend still didn't get them to accept the downgrade but he did get a rate reduction, which counts as victory when dealing with a cable company.

This ties into perhaps the most important point in these terrestrial TV stories. Competition is good but it's not not good enough by itself. When American television joined the rest of the world and went digital,the market should have become more competitive but years after the conversion, cable and satellite companies are still able to act like near-monopolies in large part because of asymmetry of information.

I've argued that digital over-the-air television is a great technology that more people ought to be using, but it may turn out to have the most impact on those stick with cable. Dealing with Comcast et al. will be much easier when the companies start facing more market pressure.

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