Fate, and the Flip of a Coin

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“Is that what you're askin' me? If there's something wrong with anything?”

It's a question that the emotionless psychopath in No Country for Old Men asks the operator of a dusty general store in West Texas, in the “coin-toss scene” in this desolate film about desperation.

The operator is very nervous. He doesn't know what is going to happen if he stays in this store with Anton Chigurh, the threatening character played by Javier Bardem. He doesn't even know if he agrees to the coin toss if he will wind up losing his store, his life or worse.

Operators of small cable systems in this country face a similar bedeviling game of chance. As chronicled succinctly by Linda Moss in “No Country for Old Systems” in Monitor (page 22), they don't know whether they need to change the business they're in or to get out. They're living a game of chance.

Two decades or more ago, they got into cable because subscription television was the wave of the future. There were no public Internet, cell phones or iPods.

There were pretty much three television networks. And the idea that you could even get close-to-first-run movies onto home screens at scheduled times made HBO a wonder of the age. Enough to make it worth stringing wire into places as remote as Alpine and Marfa, Texas.

But now the cable-television systems that reach into the hinterlands of America are facing a fundamental existential problem. Should they be in television at all?

To rural America, the most efficient means is not to lay wire between every home. The distances can be scores of miles. Heck, fewer than 70 people live in Loving County, in West Texas. Square miles: 677. More than a million live in Rhode Island. Square miles: 1,045.

In these parts, it's not unusual to find systems serving a couple hundred subscribers. A 5,000-subscriber system can be considered large.

The American Cable Association counts 1,100 members all told. But if you total up all the subscribers of these small systems, they come to just a bit more than 7 million.

In effect, all the small operators combined amount to one large operator. A bit bigger than Charter Communications or Cox Communications. Way smaller than Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

With none of the advantages of “clustering” households in single, dense markets.

Now, wireless TV — broadcasting — is undermining their economics twice.

Broadcasting from satellites is a much easier way of blanketing rural America with the television of the future: High-definition programming.

Broadcasting from local TV stations, on the other hand, is changing irrevocably. All signals will now be digital.

Upgrading systems to be all-digital would be costly enough. To convert at the same time to high-definition programming may well bring out the coffins.

Oh, and by the way, the Federal Communications Commission wants capacity-constrained small operators to carry those local TV signals not just in the mandated digital form — but analog as well.

So a rural cable operator has to figure out if it's worth being in the television game at all. The only safe play may be to just provide services DirecTV and Dish Network can't: Internet access and voice-over-IP. Let customers download TV shows and movies, instead of deliver them on a schedule.

Maybe there's a rollup play here for Netflix, Apple, TiVo or Vudu. After all, if anyone has a serious interest in selling a new kind of box that allows a consumer to bring home unlimited amounts of professional and amateur video onto big and small screens in the most remote parts of the United States, it's the independent operator. These could be the digital general store operators for rural America.

In the meantime, each is facing what seems, in business, like a life and death gamble. A coin toss, with an unknown fate hanging in the outcome.

In No Country for Old Men, the operator of the general store wants to know what he stands to win, before agreeing to let the threat before him make the flip.

“Everything; how's that?” says the villain.

His implicit message: You can't avoid fate.

Just make a call.

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