Cable: The Worst Deal Of The Decade

The price of everything in the telecom world has fallen over the past decade, except for cable. Cable is now 77% more expensive than it was ten years ago, an increase that dwarfs the rate of inflation and makes telecom executives salivate. The Times looks with pity on all of us who splay our wallets wide for the industry, and asks if there’s any salvation other than à la carte pricing.

The starting point for comparison is 1996, when Congress deregulated the telecom industry, ostensibly to spur competition. Startups and cable companies quickly trammelled the telecoms’ ability to dictate prices, but nobody emerged to take on cable.

Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the F.C.C., said in an interview that since 1996, when Congress increased competition in telecommunications, prices have dropped for many other services.

“We’ve seen the opposite occur in the cable industry,” he said. “The dramatic increases in pricing we’ve seen are one of the most troubling issues from a consumer point of view.”

In 2007, average monthly revenue for each Cablevision subscriber was $75, up from $65 in 2005, according to SNL Kagan, a research company. At Time Warner it was $64, up from $54.50.

The industry isn’t changing its prices or practices because consumers aren’t changing their habits.

“I work eight hours a day facing a computer. When I come home, the last thing I want to do is mess with another computer,” said Eric Yu, 24, a college student in San Francisco who pays around $80 a month for cable.

Mr. Yu said he watches only a handful of channels, including some in high definition like National Geographic. But to get them, he has to pay for a premium package. “I just pay the bill and try to forget about it,” he said. “It lessens the pain.”

Well, some are…

Evelyn Tan, 22, a friend of Mr. Yu, takes a different approach. She pays Comcast $33 a month for Internet access and does not get cable television — but she does watch TV programming.

In fact, she watches ABC shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Gray’s Anatomy,” which are free on the Web. When she wants to watch shows or movies that are not readily available online, she says she easily pirates them. “I would not pay for cable TV at all,” she said.

A la carte programming isn’t coming anytime soon, but the monopolistic anti-consumer juggernaut Verizon might provide some relief as it elbows its way into the television business. While Verizon is no better than its cable competitors, its arrival opens a brief window for competition by allowing consumers play one giant against the other to eek out slight savings on cable programming.

Of course, those slight savings might only bring your rates closer to what you were paying two or three years ago. Neither the Times nor the FCC think cable is worth the cost. What do you think?

Cable Prices Keep Rising; Customers Keep Paying [NYT]
(Photo: Getty)