If you think charging for HD is OK, look in the mirror. You are a cable executive.

September 6, 2006

In 1981 I graduated from high school and got my first stereo. It had a tuner, turntable and an 8-track tape player – all in one box. It had speakers that, when cranked as far up as they could go, were… well… not so great… but they were loud.  Come to think of it, in life as our ability to buy bigger and better speakers [the ones capable of crystal-clear cranking up] increases, our need to crank them up actually decreases. Hmmm… But this Blog isn’t about speakers. It is about continuing to pay the cable company an extra ten bucks a month just for HD. It just isn’t right.

In the past ten years I’ve spent more time on Capitol Hill than most people spend in their backyards. While not a lobbyist in any sense of the word, I do have the ears of our lawmakers. Last week I blogged about having to pay cable extra for ESPN-HD. The response was 99-to-1 in agreement. Like it or not, Disney (the owners of ABC and ESPN), Monday Night Football is an American Institution. Readers tend to agree that SNF is a luxury, but MNF is a right. It ought to be free, HD or otherwise. But the problem isn’t with Disney. The problem is with your local cable company. They are choosing to charge us.

Thinking back to 1981, we’ve actually been here before. After fulfilling her duties of “raising” me, my grandmother left town. She left behind her 19” Philco black and white television. I was now free to watch television AND listen to my stereo (favorite album: Tubes – Completion Backwards Principle) as loud as I wanted, as long as I wanted, and if I wanted, BOTH at the same time.

In my house, if it had an “on” switch, then you can bet it was on. If it had volume dial then you can bet the dial was turned all the way up. My life was complete: TV, stereo, an amazing girlfriend and a car. What more could a 17 year-old guy want? On August 1st I found out. That was the day MTV became MTV. I wanted my MTV. By the end of the day nearly everyone I knew was buzzing about getting their MTV.

My best friend Dave’s dad actually had the cable company hook it up so he could run it through their home stereo. He was a stereo-phile. He was an early adopter. Watch MTV on the TV and listen to it as loud as you want through your home stereo. Brilliant…. Unfortunately, like switching back to analog from HD today, once you watched and listened to MTV with the aid of a home stereo it just wasn’t the same without the stereo.

As a young man with limited means, August 1st was also the day I learned what a splitter was. Almost to the minute I learned about MTV I phoned my local cable company because I had to have it. I wanted my MTV. MTV was cool, but imagine the experience of cranking it through my stereo? Unfortunately, my cable company informed me that they were charging for the ability to listen to MTV over the stereo. I think it was like $3.95 per month. To me, that was a lot. It just didn’t seem right. I had to take action. At the time I knew where Capitol Hill was, but not much more than that. I needed another plan.

Since I knew I was never going to pay my cable company for getting MTV on my stereo, I decided to go to Dave’s house to see how the cable company managed to get the sound into the stereo. What I found there, and what I subsequently deduced in the next hour, stays with me to this day. All the cable company had done was use a splitter at the wall with one cable running to the television and the other going to the stereo. The stereo was then set to an FM channel which carried MTV. The splitter, I found out later that day at Radio Shack, cost all of fifty cents. Fifty cents! How can the cable company charge us?

Using money I’d raised from can returns (pop cans, I swear), that night I bought every splitter Radio Shack had in stock, twelve in all. I wanted my MTV. My friends wanted their MTV. We got our MTV….  We took matters into our own hands.

My house became not only a Mecca for post-hockey game parties, it became the place where everyone went to enjoy MTV in stereo. None of us had any idea that we were the MTV Generation. Overnight our televisions (and stereos) became always-on devices. We now had Sting, Madonna, Duran Duran, and yes, Michael Jackson, to keep us company 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The arrival of MTV (no offense CNN, but I was only 17) was the single most important event in the history of television. While our parents got cable to get better reception, our generation got cable to get MTV. Unfortunately it was the early adopters who had to foot the bill. And, like the situation with ESPN today, it is the cable companies who were sticking it to the consumer.

So now it is 2006. We no longer pay for MTV. Thankfully that practice was short lived. I am sure the cable executives that came up with the MTV “up charge” have long since retired. After abusing their near monopolistic positions and banking the monies they bid us adieu. Unfortunately the college interns that were following those guys around back in 1981 are now the guys in charge. Apparently they learned their lessons well and finance their futures on the backs of the early adopters. What is happening with ESPN-HD is not the fault of ESPN, or Disney, or ABC.

What is happening with HD over cable is the fault of the cable executives who know all too well that watching anything in analog on an HD set is a truly poor experience. Their remedy is simple. For a mere $10 MORE per month they can solve all your worries. Yesterday, you could get MTV in stereo…for a fee. Today, for a mere $10 more per month you can actually make your HD set get HD. The cable companies know that this time around it takes more that a fifty cent splitter to get HD. It takes a subscription. Just having an HDTV apparently isn’t enough.

Charging for HD is wrong. Any blogger disagreeing clearly works for a cable company. It is time to take it to the Hill. Many of us have done our part. Local broadcasters have done their part. Nearly every local TV station is placing pristine HD content FREE over-the-air. Several cable networks like Discovery, National Geographic, HD Net, and etc have made outstanding HD content available to us. Consumers by the millions are buying HD televisions.

We could vote with our pocket books and not subscribe as several bloggers stated last week. Go ahead. That is your right. Or, we could let our local cable provider know this fight is going to Capitol Hill. Charging early adopters is wrong. Holding the ESPN-HD signal ransome is just plain wrong.

It is time to tell cable we will not stand for it. It is time to tell Congress that we shouldn’t have to pay extra for HD. I’ll share any and all applicable comments on the Hill as this story unfolds. I want my HDTV…