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by Nancy Machlis Rechtman

Do you remember the days when you could turn on a TV and not have to pay for that privilege? Of course, there were only about seven channels and, once the clock struck midnight, there was only a black-and-white test pattern on the screen accompanied by a high-pitched blast of sound, jolting awake anyone who had accidentally fallen asleep in front of the TV.

While today, we now have several thousand stations to choose from, there are rarely more than two shows on at the same time that we actually want to watch. But we must pay for the entire line-up on the chance we might someday want to watch the "Watching Lettuce Grow" Channel. There have been faint suggestions that cable TV customers be allowed to design their own package for viewing, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Not when most cable companies have a monopoly in the cities they "serve." While there might be competition from satellite dish companies, the cable companies frequently run banners with dire warnings that every show you watch might soon be banished from the airwaves if you had the temerity to sign up with these upstarts. But there isn't a level playing field here - cable-to-cable competition that might finally reduce the insane rates extorted from us. I have heard there are still those among us who still watch free TV via an antenna, but they remain hidden from the rest of us.

The rest of us have seen our rates double, even triple over the past few years. The cable companies insist that is because of the diverse programming we are now being offered. But, you might protest, I really couldn't care less about the "How to Freeze an Ice Cube" Channel, so why do I need to pay for it? Why the all or nothing mentality? Are the big cheeses afraid that at some point their 'valued customers' might see through their smoke and mirror act? That most of the programs offered to their viewers are not worth their time? That the viewers would be happy paying half the price and receiving half the stations currently being offered? Can you imagine the panic at the upper echelons if we began demanding a voice in what shows up on our television sets, and want it priced accordingly instead of watching our unregulated rates continue to careen into hyperspace?

I got a glimpse of the inner workings of our local cable company last month during a major ice storm. Thousands of us lost both power and phone connections. It was not fun, believe me. After several days, both power and phone were restored. We were more than grateful when the heater once again powered up and we could shed the multiple blankets wrapped around our shivering bodies after days of being able to see our breath when we were inside, There was a great deal of damage caused by falling trees and limbs throughout the area. Initially, when we realized we still did not have our cable back, we shrugged it off. We were just glad we could walk to the other end of the house without needing scarf, hat, and gloves. Thank goodness we could eat hot food again. (Of course that meant that I had to cook once again, but hey, a small price to pay for having our power restored.)

I called the cable company and got a recording informing me that they had widespread outages and that they were 'working on it.' OK, I'd give them a chance. Several more days went by and still no television. This was starting to get old as the memories of frozen nights curled up near the dying embers of the fireplace began to recede. Plus, it was Winter Break. With kids home and no TV, desperation started setting in. Yes, we watched DVD's at night. And I would park myself by the tiny TV in the kitchen which receives four channels (two come in OK; the other two hiss and fade out if anyone walks into the room) to catch the evening news. I continued to call the cable company. I continued being assured that they were 'working on it.'

After a week, there was no longer a recording, meaning that most people had gotten there cable back. I talked to the reps on a daily basis. Yes, they told me, of course we are working on it. Many people are still out. I protested: How come the electric company and the phone company have gotten service back to almost everyone in the area, except possibly those living on the mountaintops. What was the deal here? Oh, don't worry, we will fix it. We were now on Day 11 of no television. Grumpy kids, frustrated husband, desperate mom. We discovered that the dangling line by the fence was not the phone line, but the cable line -causing us to once again wonder why cable is not underground! I called the cable company twice that day, certain that my discovery would bring immediate action and relief.

Oh yes, they assured me. Dangling lines constitute a priority situation.
I said. So, you'll come out right away?
Well, we'll schedule a visit.
What do you mean, you'll schedule a visit? Haven't you already scheduled a visit?
Well, you were on the list. Now we will schedule you in, ASAP. We will be there by the beginning of January.
What??????? That is a priority? That is another week and a half away!
Well, we will probably have someone out there before next year (heh heh). But we have to enter a time that the service will definitely be finished by. So we will put down some time next year.

The evening of Day 12. Husband is going through major withdrawal, kids have vacant look in their eyes, I grab the phone once more, vowing not to succumb to hysteria. That doesn't last long as I begin to shriek at the rep. Where is my cable? Why don't I have cable? Don't I give you enough money each month to pay off the debt of a small country? How would you like to switch places with me and stay at a house with no TV while everyone is home for vacation and unable to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas Special? You people are messing with a woman who is definitely over the edge, don't you understand?
We promise, someone will be there in the morning.
Yes, we promise we will have it fixed by noon tomorrow.
Bless you.

We arrive home at one o'clock the following afternoon. Kids run to the TV and turn it on in great anticipation. Pure fuzz. Ohhhhhh nooooooo. Everyone stares at me as if this is all my fault. I haven't done enough, haven't made enough calls, haven't sufficiently relayed the urgency of the situation. I grab the phone. It is high noon in my mind, even though I'm off by an hour. It's them or me. I start ranting at the voice at the other end. You promised, you said it would be all over by now, I'm going to make calls, TV and newspapers will know about this! I insist on speaking to a supervisor. I am put on hold for approximately half an hour. No one comes on the line, so I hang up and dial the local newspaper. I ask if anyone knows what in the world is wrong with this cable company, how they could possibly be so inefficient, how they could. . . .

Mom, my son says. It's back.
The cable. It's back.

I rush into the room. There, in all of its glory, is CNN.
Never mind, I say to the nice reporter. Thanks anyway.

It's amazing how frustration fades so quickly when things return to normal. And it was a small thing, compared to all the terrible events in the world. I had not lost any of the gratitude I had experienced when we got our power back - I was extremely grateful to have power and heat and food and a roof over our heads, when there are so many people in the world who don't have any of that. Who don't even have the certainty that they will ever have any of that. So, while I continue to begrudge the cable company the insane profits they reap from their customers, I also know that this is not such an awful thing to be upset about. What I would like to do is propose that the cable company donate a percentage of their enormous profits to organizations that help people needing shelter and food and decent clothing. Then, I wouldn't mind paying so much for the "100 Things to do with Dryer Lint" Channel.

Please let me know your reactions to these columns as I would enjoy hearing what bugs you, too. You can reach me at

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