Ch-Ch-Ch-Change

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Forgive me for plugging David Bowie, my all time fave rock recording artist, but he makes a rather compelling case as he wails on about humanity's disgust for change. In the end, they grudgingly accept change because there is no choice.

But with cable, people have choices, including DBS, overbuilders and, yes, the Internet. And given my recent brush with an angry mob of Chardonnay-sipping cable subscribers, I have to wonder if operators understand how much subscribers hate seemingly unnecessary wholesale channel realignments.

That's especially true when their cable operators move everything around willy-nilly and don't add any new programming services.

Frankly, I didn't have a clue either, until I unwittingly walked into my monthly book-club meeting last week and immediately became the target of the members' pent-up frustration with Cablevision's total channel realignment.

Their outburst really amazed me because it came from educated and successful professionals whom you would think wouldn't give a flying Wallenda about something like this. Their ranks include a patent lawyer, a published author, a director of a facility for emotionally disturbed children, an artist and a daytrader, and the latter was just as ticked off with Cablevision as she was with the plunge in the NASDAQ.

In other words, these people don't watch a whole lot of television anyway, but they do make time in their hectic lives to read and discuss books and the world at large. They're a nice group, generally, nibbling on their canapés and discussing literature, except for last week's meeting, when they ambushed me and expected me to explain how cable companies operate. No thanks.

But I got an earful anyway because they know what I do for a living. For folks who watch maybe one hour of TV per day, they were ready to mutiny and go over to DBS, or anything else. And of course they all have the disposable income to do that, but like most situations that require time and energy to change, inertia will prevail and the book clubbers, I predict, will stay the cable course.

This was a very agitated bunch, even though there was ample warning that this channel rejiggering was under way. But I understand their frustration. These are very busy people who, when they do have a moment to collapse in front of the tube, now found that their favorite channels, in their words, had been relegated off to Siberia.

I just sat there like a stump and listened. I had nothing to say because I've been too busy to notice what was going on with my own cable system. But when I got home late that night and clicked on to my favorite channel, it wasn't there.

That led to a rifling of the towering junk-mail pile. And there was the flyer from Cablevision urging me to "Please review immediately." You couldn't miss it with all of the bright red ink. It warned that many channels would be moving.

It might have caught my eye earlier if it had honestly said, "All of your channels are moving."

I read on, kind of excited that we might be getting some new channels. Why else would there be this massive exercise in chaos? Usually, when cable systems realign their channels, it's done to add new services. But guess what? Not a single new channel.

Instead, there was an apologetic note from a sincere-sounding Cablevision senior vice president who acknowledged how frustrating it is when channels move around and how it takes a few days to adjust to the new locations.

But, "due to federal law, the FCC has mandated that we move certain broadcast channels," he wrote.

Oh really? Every stinking channel? I don't think so.

He wrote on, "We've taken this opportunity to re-evaluate channel locations. We've organized the lineup to make it more logical [ha], more customer-friendly and easier to use."

So Cablevision clumped the news channels together, and likewise for sports, children's and other programming genres. The brochure again apologized, saying that the new channel lineup will "make things easier in the long run."

And to add that warm and fuzzy touch, the Cablevision executive ended his letter by saying, "I'll be sitting in my living room having a similar experience." Like that's supposed to make anyone feel any better.

If Cablevision really thinks clumping channels by genre is a big consumer benefit that makes up for this inconvenience, I invite their executives to our next book-club meeting to hear from real subscribers.

There should have been a reward for all of the confusion, like several new programming networks added to the lineup. That would make it worth the now-Herculean effort to slog through this mire of change. Like Bowie, we in Westchester County are left sputtering, "Ch-ch-ch-change."

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