Dollars and (Non)sense of Digital Television Part II: The Plot Thickens

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Here's a friendly note to E!, Sci Fi Channel, A&E, truTV, Animal Planet and Travel Channel: Watch your ratings!

With the arrival of the summer season and the avalanche of exciting new cable programming that it brings, it is likely that national ratings for most or all of these networks are on the rise. E! has enjoyed an early summer spike from its trash-heap toppers Denise Richards: It's Complicated and Living Lohan, as has A&E from the acclaimed miniseries The Andromeda Strain. But here in the tri-state area, or at least in the great state of Connecticut (which isn't looking quite so great now that we have the highest gas prices in the nation), the good news comes with a caveat. Ratings for these networks aren't what they might have been if our local cable provider, Cablevision, hadn't recently yanked them from its Family Cable package. (Compounding the severity of the yank, Cablevision offered no reduction in the Family Cable monthly charge after doing this. Ouch!)

I didn't think much about the letter that came around a few weeks back notifying subscribers of the upcoming yank. In the letter, subscribers who had not yet converted to digital cable (whether out of indifference or because they cannot afford monthly increases in their cable bills, given what's happening at local gas stations) were offered a free digital upgrade (plus one rent-free digital cable converter box) for one year. The free digital upgrade came with lots of new channels, many of them in high definition. If customers didn't accept the free offer, the letter made clear, they would no longer be able to enjoy the above mentioned networks (plus QVC, C-SPAN2 and mun2) as of May 27. (Curiously, Cablevision also pulled QVC competitor HSN on that date, without any warning.)

I don't know what the response to the letter was, in terms of numbers, but I do know that I heard from several friends this past weekend who were miffed that they were suddenly unable to watch two Sci Fi Channel series, Ghostbusters and Battlestar Galactica. (This isn't the first time friends have complained to me about changes in television.) When I reminded them that they could receive digital cable and a converter box free for one year, they replied that they couldn't afford the new high-definition TVs "needed" to receive it. I then explained that digital cable works just fine with regular TV sets, even though programs don't come through in high-def. Then they asked if the free-for-one-year converter box would work for all their television sets. No, I replied, they would need to rent boxes on a monthly basis for each of their additional sets if they wanted the option of watching the above mentioned networks (plus the many dazzling digital channels Cablevision provides) in different rooms.

"Screw that!," came the reply. (Those gas prices really do have people on edge. Just wait until the electric bills for all the air-conditioning during this week's punishing heat wave come in. Good times!)

Are the responses of a few friends of mine worth writing about? Once upon a time I might have said no, but today, when ten people can post scathing comments to a blog entry on a Web site and media experts of every stripe can then exclaim that the blogosphere is "buzzing," I think my own first-hand experiences are similarly urgent, and perhaps more valid.

When companies such as Cablevision yank channels out of analog service, they are potentially limiting the locations in which people can watch those channels, even in digital homes. For example, the TVs in my kitchen and bedroom do not receive digital cable, and I am not compelled to pay still more money to Cablevision to rent additional boxes for those rooms. That means that on a leisurely Saturday morning spent in my kitchen (a very nice room in which to spend time) or at night when I get into bed I am no longer able to watch any of the programming on the yanked networks.

Going forward this is great news for the broadcast networks and those privileged cable networks that do not become bargaining chips. But if other cable systems around the country are currently executing such yanks, or plan to soon begin doing so, potentially millions of people are going to miss out on a lot of the great programming that many cable networks are offering this summer and in the fall. And that will impact ratings, no?

This will be an even bigger issue next February, when the feds throw the big switch. Multiple television homes won't be as multiple as they are now. I'm told broadcast networks will still come in on sets without converter boxes, but cable networks will disappear from certain rooms in millions of homes, just as E! and Sci Fi Channel did from my kitchen and bedroom two weeks ago.

Another issue: Whether media executives and our elected officials want to admit it or not, this is a terrible time in which to mandate that cable customers start paying significantly more money to their programming providers every month. On NBC's Today show earlier this week, financial advisor Jean Chatzky urged cash-strapped viewers to cut premium cable (among other things) from their monthly budgets. Next winter, when fuel costs potentially wreak further havoc on the nation's economy, will she amend that statement to include basic cable packages, as well?

It is not my specific intent to target Cablevision in this discussion of matters that should be of interest to anyone who works in and around television, not to mention millions of consumers. Cablevision happens to be my television and Internet access provider, so I am familiar with the realities of its customer relations and how its actions impact consumers. To end on a positive note: Cablevision offers a sensational selection of high definition networks within its digital family cable package, including the VOOM networks, which increasingly command more and more of my optional viewing time.

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