Monday, July 15, 2013

How we ended up with cable

I've always taken a sort of perverse, reverse-snobbish pride in the fact that I've never had cable TV. Back when Brian first moved in with me, we bought a bare-bones "basic broadcast" package that included only the network channels, but when we discovered that we could tune in most of these with a $20 indoor antenna, we dropped even that. Since then, the options for finding video entertainment online have mushroomed. With the help of our little media spud computer, we can now watch just about any show that interests us, from "Downton Abbey" to "Auction Hunters," without paying a dime. (Well, okay, we do have to pay to get "A Game of Thrones" on DVD.) And through our use of Hulu, we've enjoyed interesting shows that we might never have come across otherwise, such as the Hulu-exclusive miniseries "The Booth at the End," and older shows that are no longer available over the airwaves, such as "Hill Street Blues." Indeed, with such a wealth of free entertainment to choose from, I've often wondered why anyone ever pays for cable at all.

So how, then, did we end up subscribed to cable?

Well, it's a long story. It all started one fateful Wednesday last month, when our phone suddenly stopped working. We contacted Verizon to get it fixed, and they couldn't give us an appointment any sooner than the following Tuesday. And that Saturday, it suddenly started working again. There was still a pronounced hum on the line, but we could in fact make and receive calls, so we canceled our repair appointment, thinking everything was back to normal. And so it was until the following Friday, when the phone suddenly stopped working again. This time we only had to wait five days for the first available appointment—but it was a particularly inconvenient time to be without a phone, as our cat was in the hospital and our Patio Project was just about to commence. Fortunately, we had an old cell phone with a couple of months' worth of stored-up credit on it, so we plugged that in and gave the number to the vet and the folks at Belle Mead Co-Op, as well as friends and family who might need to reach us. And on Wednesday morning, we left a note on the door to notify the Verizon repair person that if we didn't answer on the door, we'd be in the back yard, working on the patio.

We needn't have bothered. Our appointment was scheduled for some time between 8am and noon, but noon came and went with no sign of a repair person. We kept going inside to check the phone and see if maybe it had fixed itself again, but nope, the phone still wasn't working; Verizon had simply decided not to honor its appointment. Nor did they make any attempt to e-mail me or to call on either our old or our new cell phone number, both of which we'd provided to them, to apologize for the delay or to schedule a new appointment. They just blew us clean off.

It was at that point that we decided that we were through with Verizon. Even if they did eventually manage to get our phone fixed, it would be too little, too late.

So we started looking into other alternatives for phone service. I'd toyed before with the idea of switching over to some sort of VoIP in order to save money, but I'd always been unwilling to give up the security of a phone that we could count on to keep working during a power outage. However, given that we no longer seemed to be able to count on it to keep working when there wasn't a power outage, that didn't seem like much of an advantage anymore. So I consulted the ConsumerSearch report on VoIP services, and I found that we had two reasonable options: we could get service from our local cable provider (there is only one), or we could get a device called an Ooma, which costs about $150 up-front, but which allows you to make unlimited calls over the Internet basically free of charge. (You still have to pay government fees and taxes, but that's only a few bucks a month.) The Ooma would definitely have cost us less in the long run, but when we compared reviews for it and for the VoIP service provided by our cable company, it looked like we were likely to get better voice quality and reliability with Cablevision. So we gave them a call to get ourselves set up with phone service.

We strongly suspected, when we placed the call, that they would try to sell us on their package service: phone, cable, and Internet combined. We were already getting letters in the mail an average of once every two weeks offering to sell us this package at $85 a month for a year—but if you looked at the fine print, you'd see that this price was actually available only to people who were switching over from another TV service. For us, it would actually cost about $100 a month—and even that price would only be guaranteed for the first year. So I wasn't at all surprised, when I started talking to the customer service rep, that the first thing he did was try to sell me on the 3-way package. What did surprise me was that he said he could give us the $85-a-month price for it, even if we weren't switching over from another provider. This would actually be $5 less per month than it would cost us to buy just the phone service and high-speed Internet separately. Brian was still suspicious and wanted to know whether it would be possible to cancel the cable when the price went up at the end of that first year. Yes, the rep assured us, we could cancel at any time. So at that point, we were in a bit of a quandary. It was all well and good to refuse to pay even a few dollars extra for cable when we knew we didn't need it, but were we actually willing to pay a few dollars extra not to have it? My penny-pinching instincts rebelled. I think Brian would still have held out for phone and Internet only, even at the higher price, just because he didn't really trust them to let us drop the cable when the time came—but he became convinced that trying to persuade them to give it to us was going to be far more work than just agreeing to the three-part package.

So, last Tuesday (ironically, one day after Verizon finally got our landline working again), a very competent guy from the cable company came out and started hooking things up and testing and tweaking, and by the end of the day, we were the proud owners (or at least temporary stewards) of a newer cable modem, a cable box, a fancy new remote with more buttons than I ever thought I'd need, and a little pink book that explained how to use everything. Everything worked fine, so at first blush, it looked like this deal had worked out entirely to our advantage. However, as Brian pointed out, there are two ways it could backfire on us. The second-worst-case scenario is that we might fail to cancel the cable service before our discount period runs out, in which case we'd have to pay about $15 extra for one month of all three services. But that's less than the $60 we'll save over the course of the year by combining the three, so we'd still come out ahead. The real worst-case scenario, and obviously the one the cable company is hoping for, is that by the time the year runs out, we'll be hooked on cable and won't want to drop it.

I agree that this would be unfortunate, but I also have to say it doesn't seem very likely. So far we've spent about an hour playing around with the new system, skimming through the literally hundreds of channels it includes, and we've found less than a dozen we might conceivably watch—and most of those we wouldn't watch for more than one show. In theory, for example, we could tune into Bravo to watch the next season of Project Runway as it airs, instead of waiting an extra day to see each episode on But if we did this, we'd actually have to watch the show when it's on: Thursday night at 9pm, which conflicts with our Morris dance practice. So it's actually much easier for us to keep watching it online. And even for shows we could supposedly watch when they air, like Auction Hunters (Wednesdays at 9, starting in January), what's the advantage? When we watch them online, we can watch any episode we choose at any time. Why tie ourselves down to the network's schedule?

So on the whole, I'm expecting that having cable for this next year won't really change our lives much. We might scroll through the channels now and then to see what's on; it's just possible we might even discover a new show that we like that way. But chances are, even if we do, we'll soon switch to watching that show online, on our own schedule. And when the year is up, I fully expect to return to my cable-free lifestyle without hesitation or regret. In fact, right now I feel like the one thing I think we've really gained from our experiment with having cable is proof that we don't need it.

I do realize that a lot can change in a year, of course. But unless one of the changes 2013-14 brings is dramatically better programming that's available exclusively on cable, I don't think there will be any problems.

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