Cable, tell subscribers about your rock-or-hard-place existence

Jim BartholdBack when there was a print media, the common-sense rule was to avoid arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The implication was that you couldn't fight the tide of the written word.

Traditional print journalism has gone the way of impartial television news, which would seem to be good news for a cable industry that has taken more than its fair share of lumps on the printed page. The thing is, though, cable's still taking its lumps, just in a different media. The latest battles over retransmission are teaching--or should be teaching--the industry that it's not a good idea to argue with people who carry Betacams.

Charter Communications (Nasdaq: CHTR) tried, and so far things don't seem to be working out after the St. Louis-based MSO used a monthly broadcast surcharge to show subscribers where their money goes.

It didn't take long for a News Channel 7/WSPA-TV, in Spartanburg, Greenville, and Anderson, S.C., and Asheville, N.C. to jump on the story as part of its "On Your Side" series of consumer reports. The station found a subscriber who was charged the extra $1.12 monthly fee and who was unhappy about it--but, of course, not at the broadcasters. The subscriber wanted to know how much Charter was paying for the rest of its programs and, basically, the old question arose of why pay for channels no one watches--or even wants to watch. To be fair, the TV journalist used Charter's accurate but hardly inspiring explanation, but the damage had been done.

"Why gouge the customers when you are the only game in town for most of us?" Cathy Bader asked the WSPA reporter with a question that could have been directed at the broadcasters, but wasn't.

It is, as my golfing friends would say, about par for the course for a cable industry that is again being raked over the coals by J.D. Power and Associates for subscriber pricing unrest. It is par for the course for an industry that's fighting off those who would cut the cable cord to somehow get unlimited free television via the Internet; an industry that repeatedly gets shredded by newcomers like satellite and telco and "anybody but the cable guy" when subscribers get choices.

Cable customer serviceIt doesn't help cable that many of the answers it provides to those who want to know why service is bad, why prices are high and why there are too many channels no one wants to watch are accurate but slightly arrogant. Sure, cable operators and their reps are testy; it's tough to be picked on every day and not get a little thin-skinned. But sometimes the responses, while factually correct, are tinged with slightest bit of know-it-all-ism, of being the ones who see the secrets of the universe but refuse to yield those secrets to the rest of the mortals out there.

Next week's CTAM Summit could do worse than to hammer home a simple message that, despite being caught between a rock and a hard place, cable operators need to suck it up, tell the truth and try to better explain their rock and a hard place situation.

Yes, programming prices are too high, but content providers should take a share of that blame and subscribers, who love their sports programming and local teams buying the best athletes, need to accept some blame as well. Yes, there are too many channels that people don't want to watch, but content providers help shape the channel packages.

Cable is in a no-win situation that, while not necessarily of its own making, is perpetrated by its insistence that its course is pure and its intentions are good and damn anyone who might question that. A dose of humility mixed with angst might help. It certainly can't hurt.