“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckart) in The Dark Knight
Most people think that quote foreshadows Harvey Dent’s own descent into villainy. Most people would be wrong. The quote is actually about the U.S. cable industry.
Like most super villains, cable’s beginnings were quite humble. Early cable lines mostly just helped farmers by delivering broadcast signals to rural areas. But as subscribers piled on, the true power of cable was finally unleashed, and it wasn’t pretty.
By 1990, cable had gone from a back-up method for getting I Love Lucy to the primary method of getting everything. Sports? News? Movies? Check, check, check. By the 2000s, cable would be the preferred method of Internet access, too. People wanted cable. They needed cable. Whenever you moved into a new house or apartment, you couldn’t wait until the cable guy showed up. Your home wasn’t complete until he flipped the switch. Cable had it all. It was both a luxury and a necessity.
And then cable turned evil.
Cable companies can still redeem themselves. It’s not too late.
Once 80 percent of American homes were dependent on cable companies, they began taking their customers for granted. They made once-optional equipment mandatory. New channels felt more like filler. Price increases didn’t correlate with a rise in desirable content. They became Harvey “Two-Face” Dent flipping a two-headed coin – they wanted us to think we had options, when really we didn’t.
New services have risen to challenge cable, but not without their own drawbacks. Fiber services are fast and feature-rich, but not available many places. Streaming services are proliferating, but all the subscriptions you’d need to replicate a basic cable package are just as expensive as cable, if not more. Dish and DirecTV offer nice deals when you can get them, but also long contracts with hefty termination fees. The post-cable era is beginning to look bleak. Is there anyone who can swoop in and save us?
Yes. The unlikeliest hero of all: Cable.
Cable companies can still redeem themselves. It’s not too late. And they can do so without going nuclear (i.e. going full “a la carte,” which could have some nasty side effects for the entire TV industry). Here are some easy things cable companies can do right now to win back much of the goodwill they’ve lost in the last decade.
Ditch the cable box
It’s not a coincidence that cable’s best decade, the 90s, came at a time when most TVs and VCRs were sold cable-ready. It was a tremendous convenience for consumers, and a major selling point for cable itself. But some bean counters at Cable Company HQ still weren’t happy. They missed the revenue from leasing equipment. So they found a way to make them mandatory again.
“Sure, you can get up to 70 channels with no cable box,” they said in a dark alley behind the middle school, “but that’s analog cable. Wouldn’t you like something better? Something digital?”
Hundreds of channels. Better sound and video quality. The ability to watch movies on demand. “Sounds great!” we shouted, “but what’s the catch?”
“That’s the best part,” they responded. “There isn’t one!”
Ah, but there was: the return of the cable box. And this time the cable companies were ready to fend off any attempt to bypass them. Even though TVs were now digital, TiVo’s were digital, and, heck, even VCRs had gone digital (after they changed their name to “DVD players”), the cable companies made sure none of those devices could decode their digital signals. Every home had to have a digital cable box, and most homes had to have many. Even when the government finally stepped in and required cable companies play nicely with others, the best they could cough up were “CableCARDS” which they made as useless as they legally could.
So we took the boxes. We got our digital cable. And then they charged us $10 a month for the privilege. Per room. Not including DVR service.
If cable companies would just embrace the idea of “cable-ready” products once again, that would go a long way to redemption. Bills would shrink dramatically overnight. Cable would become more flexible and easier to use throughout the home. A great many cord-cutters simply wouldn’t feel the need to cut-the-cord anymore. It’ll be the wonderful ‘90s all over again.
We get it, cable companies: You have shareholders. Wall Street loves growth, but it’s hard to grow when you’ve hit a wall with subscribers. So you merge to give the illusion of growth. But it’s not going to work. Any short-term gains you get on Wall Street from a merger won’t last long if you keep scaring away subscribers. And the scariest thing of all to consumers? Monolithic corporate monstrosities.
Stop hiding your best feature in the fine print.
In order to get permission to lay their cables, cable companies had to make a lot of concessions to local governments. Cable’s biggest concession: No contracts. That’s why you can cancel your cable service at any time, for any reason, without penalty. Or, at least, you’re supposed to. Of course, they don’t want you to know that. They want to make it as hard as possible to cancel cable. Which is dumb. They’re taking a major benefit they have over satellite and pretending it doesn’t exist.
Be cool when people need to cancel, and you know what? They will come back.
The single biggest complaint I hear about satellite companies are their onerous long-term contracts. Move into a building that doesn’t let you have a Dish, but you’re still under contract? Too bad. Pay up. Can’t afford the monthly bill anymore? Too bad. Keep the service or pay up. Satellite doesn’t care if you’re moving in with your boyfriend or if you lost a job. And they don’t have to care.
But cable has to care. By law.
What are you thinking, Cable? This should be one of your biggest selling points. Let people know cable is a “contract-free zone.” Embrace the distinction. Use it to differentiate you from satellite. Get rid of your “customer retention centers.” Be cool when people need to cancel, and you know what? They will come back.
Don’t ever do stuff like calling a customer “Super Bitch” ever again.
When Silicon Valley calls, pick up the phone.
Upstart cable alternatives like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are trying their damnedest to offer as a cable-like an experience as possible (i.e. one-stop access to a slate of desirable channels). You know who already offers a cable-like experience? Cable!
The upstarts are trying to reinvent the wheel. Cable, you’re the wheel! You can replicate their unique features more easily than they can replicate yours. But you’re going to need help, because clearly you can’t do this on your own.
Instead of buying up other cable companies, snap up a tech start-up that knows a thing-or-two about user interfaces. When Apple gives you a call because it wants the next Apple TV to supplant a cable box, listen. Yes, your menus have gotten a little better over the last decade, but not enough. Your DVRs still lack the smarts of a TiVo box from 2002. Your channel lineups are still way too inflexible.
A prime example: You know the number-one reason why people want à la carte channel options? Because they hate looking at channels they never watch. Keyword: “Looking.” Letting people easily rearrange the order of channels, so they can essentially hide the ones they don’t want to see, will instantly improve the experience for so many would-be cord-cutters. Seriously. It’s Psychology 101. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I’m not talking about “filters” or “favorites.” I’m talking about a truly flexible channel lineup.
Just be flexible
Cable, you don’t need to make drastic changes to reap major benefits for both yourself and for customers. If there’s one word that links together most of the above advice it’s “flexibility.” A little flexibility goes a long way to retaining customers.
You were a premium experience once before. You can be a premium experience again. You don’t have to be the bad guy. In fact, do enough things right and you might even find yourself playing the role of the hero. (Keyword: “Might.”)