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Our first family television was a round black and white cathode-ray tube (CRT) housed in a square cabinet. That TV strained to pull in three network stations over the airwaves. Getting good reception sometimes required my mother carefully pinching aluminum foil around rabbit ear antennas as my father impatiently directed the proper angle from his recliner. TV programming was limited back then. We never watched more than a couple hours each day. Every night shortly after the evening news, the national anthem would play and a test pattern that looked like the face of a compass appeared on the screen until the next morning.
That was nearly 60 years ago. Life was simple. Watching TV was simple. Other than the initial cost of the television, viewing was free. You didn’t need a handheld remote or an on-screen TV guide to find your next program. You just knew The Ed Sullivan Show was on CBS Sunday at 8:00 p.m.
I remember seeing my first cartoon sitting on the living room floor with my younger sister. She and I would position ourselves in the same spot at 4:30 every afternoon to watch The Captain Jinks and Salty Sam Show 1 on WEEK Peoria. Popeye, Tom & Jerry, and The Three Stooges were featured. Many years later, my parents purchased a color set. The improved viewing experience was nothing short of a miracle. As far as I was concerned, TV technology could’ve stopped right there.
That simple life has been hijacked by 21st century home entertainment systems aided by satellite and cable “service providers.” Three-channel CRTs in square boxes have been replaced by ever-expanding electronic organisms. At the center of these organisms are five-foot-wide 3-D “Smart” LCD panels connected to service providers offering hundreds of channels around the clock. Add in pay-per-view, internet streaming boxes, DVRs, blue-ray players, surround sound systems, and hand-held remotes that require cat-like eyesight and lunar landing dexterity and you have a level of complexity few earthlings over the age of 50 can comprehend.
I’m convinced satellite and cable service providers profit from this complexity and the confusion it presents to their customers. My belief was recently supported by inspection of my parents’ bill from their service provider.
My mom and dad are in their late 80s. They’re in good health and as mentally sharp as anyone their age, but their technical competence hasn’t kept pace with the ever-increasing number of electronic components populating their home. Some of these components and their associated features have never been used. My parents don’t even know how to use them. Mastering the use of aluminum foil to improve reception is one thing, but successfully setting your DVR to record multiple channels while you run to Walmart is another.
I found my parents’ TV service provider fees to be nearly double what I pay—DOUBLE. It appeared to me this difference was the result of my parents’ confusion and their service provider’s willingness to capitalize on it. As an example, my parents were sold services for four televisions, three capable of recording programs while viewing another program on the fourth. Keep in mind we’re talking about two people who are usually together in the same room, and a majority of their TV viewing is FOX News.
One night after Mom and Dad had gone to bed, I was watching an NCAA tournament basketball game in their sunroom. Suddenly the TV switched to an episode of House Hunters on HGTV. I was unable to return to the ballgame. I told my dad the next morning what had happened, and he said “Yeah. It does that sometimes. Don’t know why.” Other services were similarly confusing and ill-designed for my parents’ needs. I recommended they cancel the whole mess and start over, which they did.
My parents are not alone. Months prior, my 86-year-old mother-in-law asked me to review her cable fees. I uncovered unneeded services and expenses similar to my parents. She was paying for enough internet bandwidth to run a small corporation. I negotiated a significant reduction in her bill simply by calling her provider.
Satellite and cable fees seem to creep up every six months or so. It’s usually a combination of their fee structures increasing and prior “promotions” expiring. If you call and complain about the increases, new promotions can magically appear. Oddly, I can’t remember ever getting a call from a service provider to let me know that I'm eligible for these new promotions.
I keep hearing about transformations coming to the satellite and cable service provider industries. I’m not sure what these transformations are, but I sure hope they involve aluminum foil.