Cable outfits: Can't live with 'em, won't watch without 'em

MIKE LITTWIN

September 08, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

You're worried, aren't you? Well, who isn't? These are troubling times.

You've got the Orioles in the home stretch and you're sick at the thought they might disappoint again. You go to parties and you're afraid someone will ask you what NAFTA stands for. And, of course, you wouldn't be human if you weren't concerned about living in a country where Tom "Why, Why, Why Delilah?" Jones can re-emerge as a pop icon.

But the big problem is your cable company. You hate your cable company. Everyone does. Hating your cable company is as American as hating Congress.

Years ago, the cable czars got you hooked on their product, with whispered promises of Prometheus unbound. And then they gave you the remote control. It was like slipping heroin to a junkie, except this junkie never had to leave the couch.

Every so often they'd up the ante. A few new channels. A new wrinkle. A def jam. A comedy channel. A sci-fi channel. ESPN2, if you can imagine. Another -- please stop me before I hurt someone -- shopping channel.

(While channel-surfing recently, my brother-in-law, a decent soul and a professional, came upon one of the shopping channels. He stopped dead in the face of a four-barrel, turbo-charged computer, with lights flashing and gizmos gizmoing, all for about $3,000. His eyes went hard, and the kids, sensing blood, began to chant, "Dad, Dad, Dad." It was a wild orgy of consumerism, stopped only when I got someone from Shoppers Anonymous hot line on the phone to talk him down. Just dial 911.)

And it's always more money. Every month, it's more. Every month, it's a new package. And you've got to pay. What are you going to do -- buy one of those satellite dishes? You may watch "Roseanne" but you don't want to turn into her. It's bad enough you watch TV about 12 hours a day, now you have to admit to the world that you're willing to give up your yard -- why not just say it, your life -- to the TV set?

They've got their teeth in you. And they just keep taking larger bites. You saw "Jaws." You saw it on cable. It's the same premise.

Here's an example: They know you're hooked on the Orioles and you can't get an actual ticket to go to a game, so they charge you about $1,000 for a converter to get Home Team Sports and then another $13 a month on top of that. And they'd charge you for the beer in your hand if they could figure a way.

You hate 'em. And you pay 'em.

Sure you do. Who says there's 57 channels and nothing on? There's Beavis. There's Butthead. There's Geraldo. You're a junkie.

And now comes the hard part. You pay and you pay. You probably pay more even though the bright boys in Congress passed a law, saying you should pay less. And the worst of it is, now you may not even get all the channels you want.

The Cable TV Act says TV stations can charge the cable companies for their services. And if they haven't signed by Oct. 6, they're off the cable. To this point, Channels 2, 13 and 45 have resisted.

That means no baseball. No "Seinfeld." No "Oprah," for heaven's sake.

Unless, of course, you've got an antenna and can switch off your cable. This is a very easy procedure if you have an advanced degree in electrical engineering.

Degree or not, you have to have the antenna. You remember antennae. They're those weird things on top of people's houses that look like a Mars probe and are almost as useful.

I wonder if you still need rabbit ears on your TV. Takes you back, doesn't it? For some reason, if you'll recall, rabbit ears work only when you wrap them in aluminum foil like some kind of TV dinner. That was the heyday of aluminum foil, when rabbit ears were as much a part of a typical American household as red meat with every meal.

Most of us, though, would just be stuck. We'd be sitting on our couches, hitting the remote and praying the channel that wasn't there would magically reappear.

The good news is, it will.

Oh, yes, it will. The cable companies, hate 'em if you must, are going to win this war. They're a lock.

If Channel 2 is off the cable and Channel 11 is on, how do they compete? Which newscast gets watched? Which sitcoms get forgotten? Which station begs to get back on the cable? The idea for a TV station, after all, is to attract the largest possible audience.

This is a no-brainer. Speaking of which, did you catch Chevy last night?

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