My cable provider in recent days reached into my home and rudely removed a number of basic cable channels from several rooms - including MSNBC, which hit me like caffeine withdrawal Monday morning when I tuned in for my daily dose of Morning Joe.
In recent months I have increasingly turned away from the broadcast networks' morning news and entertainment programs, choosing instead a jolt of Joe. I had never been a big fan of Joe Scarborough, but I think he does an excellent job guiding co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist and their guests through topical daily conversations. Sometimes the tone is casual, at others confrontational, but the show is almost always interesting, and that's more than I can say for most of what I see on other morning shows. And when I don't find it engaging, Joe becomes comfortable background noise while I peruse the morning paper. (Yes, I still spend time with at least one newspaper most days of the week. So shoot me.)
When I turned to Joe on Monday, Scarborough and his team were nowhere to be found. In fact, all of MSNBC had disappeared! In its place was a title card that read: "This channel is now available with a digital cable box or CableCARD." I began surfing around and soon discovered that TV Land, We, Lifetime, AMC, ABC Family, VH1, MTV, BET, fuse and a couple of other basic cable networks have also been jettisoned by Cablevision from its traditional service. It's not that my long-time cable provider no longer offers these networks: The situation here is that it has moved them to its digital tier and one must now have a digital cable box to view them. This follows the similar shuffling last year of A&E, Sci Fi Channel and E!, among others.
Apparently Cablevision executed this egregious maneuver a few days ago, but I hadn't noticed, not with the arrival in the northeast of sunny weather after a prolonged period of rain, the arrival at my local multi-plex of Star Trek and my tendency to watch real-time television in my living room, home to my biggest flat-screen TV and my only digital cable box. The only real-time television I watched all weekend was the grandly entertaining season finale of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, the surprise Must-See TV event of the May sweep period, so I hadn't noticed that so many channels had disappeared from the TVs in the other rooms of my home.
Let me note here that while I am feeling freshly screwed by Cablevision, I am aware that other cable providers are doing the same things to their customers in other areas of the country. I just don't know why they're all doing it. (Is it simple greed on the part of the cable companies, or are they responding to economic pressures from cable networks or other entities? It depends on whom you ask, I suppose, but does it really matter? Either way it's the consumer who takes the hit.) A few months ago my friends in New Hampshire told me about a protest rally in nearby towns in which Comcast customers expressed their outrage at having so many cable networks pulled from their programming packages without a corresponding reduction in monthly charges. Now I know what they were so pissed off about.
The economics of Cablevision's changes are infuriating -- especially during this prolonged time of great economic hardship. I'll rant about that in a minute. First, I'll point out that all of the cable networks mentioned above are likely losing viewers in multi-television, single box homes, because they can no longer be viewed in as many rooms. This is not good for said networks or the advertisers who buy time on them. Ratings for these networks must currently be in decline simply as a function of reduced access. To put this another way, if I'm watching television in my kitchen or bedroom I am no longer seeing commercials on ABC Family, MTV, Lifetime, MSNBC and the others.
Morning Joe has lost this viewer, simply because I prefer to eat breakfast in my kitchen rather than my living room. I don't care to pay still more money to Cablevision every month just to move Joe from one room to the next. (Also, I don't care to make room for a cumbersome digital cable box on my kitchen counter.)
Like most people, I have during the last three decades paid what I believed to be a reasonable fee for basic cable delivery to my home and enjoyed it on as many different television sets as I cared to connect. Lured by the low cost of Cablevision's one-year Optimum Triple Play trial offer, I made the switch to digital about one year ago, choosing to install the single free digital box that came with the offer in my living room where I would most enjoy high definition viewing. I continued to receive a traditional cable signal in my kitchen and other rooms, where I watch television in small doses and don't care all that much about how dazzling the image is.
My Triple Play trial run is almost over, and I must say that I have been pleased with the cable, Internet and telephone services that Cablevision has provided during that time. I had even braced myself for the inevitable huge increase in my monthly bill at trial's end (well over 50 percent from the Triple Play charge). But I had not anticipated that Cablevision would be eliminating so many viewing options from most of my TVs in an effort to get even more money out of me. I know the timing is a coincidence but that doesn't make the situation any less unpleasant.
Once upon a time, the lure of a digital cable box was the promise of glorious high-definition reception. If Cablevision customers wanted to add to their monthly Family Cable charge of $52.95 (plus tax) another $10.95 (plus tax) for high-definition service, plus monthly rental charges for the box and the remote (approximately $10), they could enjoy the broadcast networks and a few dozen basic cable networks at their digital best. The combined cost of all that seemed excessive - approximately $75 per month, with digital service to only one television - but at least they could see all of the programming they were paying to bring into their homes in every room of their homes, even if they weren't all in high-def.
But now, in order to receive all of the cable channels listed above in any other room of my home, I will need to start shelling out approximately $10 more per TV. That will ramp up my monthly cable bill to approximately $100 per month - and that doesn't even include DVR rentals or pay networks. This is an obscene leap from the $39.95 (plus tax) that I was paying just a few years ago to enjoy dozens of cable channels throughout my home.
I ask all cable system operators: Is this the right time to make basic cable viewing a costly luxury, especially with the Internet offering free viewing of so many shows?