The cable industry's recent campaign to rewrite history might not be convincing, but its sheer audacity would make George Orwell proud.
The ads attempt to portray cable providers as stalwarts of competition, having elbowed past the channel domination of old-fashioned broadcast TV to provide consumers with more choices.
Now, my memory might be fuzzy – or maybe it's an accurate picture of those pictures that never quite came into focus, no matter how much you fiddled with rabbit-ear antennae – but cable started out as Darth Vader to free TV's Luke Skywalker, didn't it?
It sure was great to discover more programming in the late 1970s. HBO's uncensored content was a revelation. More importantly, the pictures were crystal clear compared to broadcast, much like the quantum leap in quality that CDs were soon to bring to the music business.
Nobody could ever again be satisfied watching three broadcast TV channels (nor with the smattering of UHF programming which were no better than ghosts of old horror movies or local sports). The choice to use cable was a no-brainer. But then what did the cable operators do with this newfound public embrace?
They acted like monopolies.
Customer support went from bad to worse. Service visits were hard to schedule, and then impossible to pin-down with any more precision than a 4 or 8-hour windows of time. God forbid you missed the repairman; or, perhaps, if you met him.
Once in the system, consumer prices got ever-more complicated, and always more expensive, as hundreds of channels were added from which we could, yes, choose.
But how many of the 500 channels in the multiverse do I watch?
So now I pay $50/month to watch TV that used to cost me nothing. Sure, I don't have to squint at anything other than my monthly bill. I could switch to satellite TV, but the costs are about the same. My choices certainly aren't competitive, in terms of benefits to me.
Why then is it important to the cable industry to recast this history as the Story of Choice? Because it wants to stifle potential competition.
Yup, it's pure doublethink.
It turns out that the Big Kahuna isn't providing consumer choice for another TV channel dedicated to sport fishing or competitive cooking, but rather owning the pipeline that brings media into our homes. Especially if you define that stuff as anything that can be digitally transmitted.
Think Internet access. Phone service. You've probably already gotten the pitch from your cable provider to do it all. The phone companies want to expand the other way, and bring you that TV content. Internet providers, temporarily flush with cash from advertising, want to assert more sustainable business models, and are also trying to get in on the game.
The idea that the likes of Google, AT&T, and Comcast could argue about consumer choice without breaking into uncontrollable laughter would be funny if they weren't so serious about it.
The various sides are trying to use legislation to create new opportunities for themselves, while limiting the competition's ability to compete. Ten states have already passed "cable competition acts" to open the doors to phone companies trying to control home access to all media transmission. So the cable industry is running ads defending a claim that there's already enough competition (it apparently invented the idea). And everyone is making their claims with straight faces.
It's easy to hate all of the brands vying for control of our communications and entertainment lives.
Imagine if the branding were focused on reality. Benefits that mattered. More dependable service. Exclusive content. Truly useful tools to screen unwanted content, or to limit access. Customer support that made a difference. Quality of transmission, storage, or whatever else.
Instead of debating the what of competition, as if it were some esoteric conversation about absolutes, the brands could make claims about the why their competitive offerings deserved our patronage. What a worthy branding challenge. What competition!
Sadly, that's not what’s happening.
What can they sell us? There’s no real consumer benefit to "bundling" TV, voice, and data services with one provider, beyond the presumed convenience of a single, huge bill. The downside is far greater, because it multiplies consumer exposure to potential service outages.
When consumers choose a provider, they give away their freedom of choice in the future, because the company erects negative, putative disincentives to change. Whether wired into a service relationship or locked into a 2-year contract, the situation sure looks and feels like monopoly control.
And pricing? It's safe to say that there’s never been a price reduction (or benefit) introduced by any of the would-be monopoly service providers in response to competition. If there were, we’d have heard about it; the best we get are special, "introductory prices" that are no better than the deals credit swindlers offer to open charge card accounts. The mobile phone industry is no different than the cable industry in this regard.
So instead, the voices of anti-competition argue about competition, each hoping to become the animal that is more equal than others. Their branding efforts are all double-plus good.
If cable invented competition, then we're winning the war against Oceania.
We're all dim bulbs if we don't realize that we've seen this programming before.