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Breaking the Cable Company's Bundles

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Friday, April 3, 2009; 7:02 AM

Remember those simpler, happier days when you could summarize your television viewing as "57 channels and nothing on"?

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If you don't, no need to worry -- there's probably a documentary about it airing on one of the three history-themed channels your TV provider just added to your service.

Usually, choice is good and more choice is better. But the subscription-TV business seems determined to push this idea to an absurd extreme. As providers add ever more channels to their standard service packages -- a feat cable operators touted last week at their annual convention, the Cable Show, in the District -- their monthly rates keep rising and the relevance of these bundles keeps dropping.

Put another way, while we've never paid less per channel we receive, we've also never had to pay for so much stuff we don't watch.

Consider the history of three major Washington area service providers over the past two years -- one cable, one satellite and one fiber optic.

Comcast's Digital Starter plan has gone from $51.10 a month for 104 channels to $55.05 a month for 139 channels. DirecTV's Choice plan has grown from $49.99 a month for 90 channels to $55.99 a month for 112 channels. And at Verizon, the Premier plan, at $42.99 a month for about 200 channels, has been replaced by a $47.99 Essentials plan that brings access to a ridiculous 305 channels.

(These numbers don't count music-only feeds or video-on-demand offerings and assume that a viewer lives in the District or, in Verizon's case, Arlington.)

The price increases alone are obnoxious enough when you consider how Internet connections and wireless phone services have been able to improve their capabilities without jacking up their rates.

You can, however, do something about cable and satellite price hikes. Many people sign up for discounted bundles of Internet, TV and phone service (though that ties you even more tightly to one company). You can switch to a new company to take advantage of the discounts it uses to lure new subscribers (at the cost of being locked into a one- or two-year contract).

Or, perhaps best of all, you can call your current provider and bargain for a lower rate. Readers and neighbors alike have reported this works quite well -- if you don't mind having to treat your TV transactions like used-car purchases.

But you can't do anything about other problems with the TV industry's more-is-always-better strategy.

One, the marginal benefit of each extra channel gets awfully thin when you can't manufacture any more hours in which you might consume this cornucopia of content.

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