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John Kelly's Washington

Hey, Cable Guy, Feel the Love

By John Kelly
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page C11

I've never shot fish in a barrel. The closest I've come to taking aim at a fat carp lolling around in the bottom of a big wooden bucket was last month, when I wrote a column that asked the age-old question: Why does everybody hate their cable company?

The cable spokesmen I talked to for that column all said the companies weren't hated. But that doesn't fit with the dozens and dozens of e-mails I received from readers eager to describe their cable hatred in all its glorious detail.

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They sent me blow-by-blow accounts of run-ins with their cable providers, meticulous timelines of the specific outrages perpetrated upon them, copies of the complaint letters they'd mailed off in angry desperation. About the best thing these readers could say about the cable companies was that they were run by people whose mothers and fathers did not have the benefit of a legally sanctioned marriage.

"Everyone does hate their cable company," wrote Killian Cousins of Alexandria. "They are a monopoly. You can't shop for a different one. If you live in their area, they've got you. Their prices are exorbitant." Then Killian warned: "Don't listen to their corporate spin!"

Don't worry. Like Odysseus's crewmates, I'd stuffed my ears with wax before listening to the cable industry's siren song.

Most enjoyable was the colorful language that dissatisfied cable customers employed while spewing their vitriol. One reader said she would rather sacrifice her firstborn child than shell out another dime for cable. Joe Graf of Herndon said he switched to satellite a while back and wasn't planning to return to cable anytime soon. "The damage has been done -- and continues to be done," Joe said. "I would sooner believe that the moon is made of cheese and the Earth is flat than believe that the cable industry would ever put the consumer first."

Many readers fixated on the hours spent at home waiting for the arrival of the mythical cable-repair guy.

"If I told my client I'd only render service three weeks in the future, 'some time between 12 and 6 p.m.,' I wouldn't have clients," said Chris Stenrud of Falls Church.

In my original column, Comcast spokesman David H. Nevins said his company's customers are as loyal as those of any industry or service. Bowie's Lisa Costello said that made her laugh out loud.

"How can you be loyal to something you have no choice over?" she asked. "It's either whatever single cable company has the monopoly over your area, or back to using an antenna. It's like saying I'm loyal to how long my fingers are."

Greta Swinnen Crais of Alexandria said it galled her that cable companies make such a big deal out of the good works they do for the community. "We apparently should kiss the ground they are walking on," she wrote. "They do not seem to understand that the good they are supposedly doing is with our money because they are asking a too high fee."

One Fairfax cable subscriber said pent-up anger at Cox Communications is so great that people have started to call the company's Springfield building "Versailles," after the palace of the haughty French King Louis XIV.

"Hmmm," this reader wrote, "is it time to start thinking about storming the Bastille?"

If so, this guy will be wearing a bandanna over his face. He asked that I not print his name. "I have enough difficulty getting my frequent cable service problems responded to in a timely fashion. I wouldn't put it past Cox to increase my problems and decrease my service if I was identified."

Boy, there's a lot of paranoia out there.

David Costanza of Centreville said that in 10 years of cable, first with Media General and then with Cox, he had no fewer than seven cable boxes. "Of the seven, I had to drive to the cable company offices to pick up four of them because I had no service and the repair waits were two to three days. There were no refunds for the days without service, either."

Five years ago, David switched to satellite. "Guess what? No service interruptions -- except for the very rare and brief ones cause by severe thunderstorms -- more channels, lower cost, great customer service."

To be fair, a few readers said satellite was just as bad as cable. But then, who needs either, asked Frederick's Lisa Snyder. "All my TV is free over the air. I get ABC, NBC, CBS, Warner, Fox and PBS, plus some independents. What more do I want? I guess if people want to pay for cable, then they have a right to complain, but I prefer the antenna way."

Other readers said they not only did without cable, they did without television entirely. I confess that people like that always make me feel slightly unworthy.

Providing a nice counterpoint to all the cable criticism was Bill Williamson of Kingstowne.

"I don't hate my cable company," Bill wrote. "I, like [most people], just want millions of channels, no interruptions ever, ultra-cheap [prices] and, of course, no need for home service. Seriously, Cox in my part of Fairfax has not had an outage since they put in the fiber-optic net nearly two years ago -- at least when anyone in our house was watching. Actually, my Post has failed to be delivered more often."

Ah. Well, I'd love to continue this conversation but suddenly find that we're out of room.

I'll be online tomorrow at 1 p.m., chatting away as I do every Friday. If you'd care to join in the conversation, go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. And to send me an e-mail, write kellyj@washpost.com. Snail mail? John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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