Making cents of my media & entertainment bills Pt 3

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Well, well. It pays to ask. So, my cable bill is about to increase from $133.18 to $134.46 because of the munificent infrastructure improvements touted by the cable provider. Can’t wait. We have the basic cable package of 75 channels of whatever you’re not in the mood for watching or maybe you haven’t seen all of the terrific Andy Griffith re-runs these 50 years since initial broadcast. Shouldn’t there be a show combining CSI and Home Shopping? This would save broadcast bandwidth, in my opinion, by combining the these insatiable channel hoarders. Something entitled QVC: WhoBuysThisStuff!? where a team of sweet and exhausting bon-bon queens research each week what actually happens to the delivery of the packages that are purchased in a fury (inside scoop: nearly half are never opened. You can look it up). They grill the recipients about their genuine intentions (“you just like to hear your voice on air, don’t you”) and what they are plotting in case that Suzanne Somers really does come over for a pink, stirrup track pants and squirrel skin purse make-over day. We also have the 10 mega-bit of Turbo Road Runner with Power Boost (10mbRRTw/PB). Of course, any service that requires such a lengthy description means that you’re receiving just the opposite. Probably the Wile Coyote Plan is what I’m looking for.

I registered on-line to research my cable options figuring that I could do as well as the call center rep. with a keyboard and internet access. After this tribulation, I learned from the Call Me Know rep. who is required to complete my transaction is authorized to help only new subscribers and not Shelf-Life such as me. Oh well, just another useless log-in and password to forget.

I was transferred to Kevin in the local, aka Durham, NC, office who reviewed my bill. ‘What else does he know about my viewing habits and can I pin the blame on our fifteen year old?’ I wondered (I’ve never watched the Kardashians, sir). I explained my desire to reduce my info-tainment expenses.

First Offer: High Definition Cable + 10mbRRTw/PB + Internet Phone Service Anywhere for the same new price of $134.36. Not so interesting as we have too many mobile phones and a Verizon land-line required by my day job. Murmur. Negotiations not going anywhere. “While you’re looking, Kevin, I just got Apple TV,” I offered to fill the void of our conversation. “How’s that? he asked.” “Really good,” I replied, “can stream movies from iTunes or my iPhone or my iPad or Netflix.” “Netflix only costs $8 per month for unlimited streaming movies.”

Offer Two “Check this out. For an additional $1.50 per month, you can have the complete Premium Package of 500 channels and 50 HD channels plus music,” he replied. “I can program that to your cable box right now. Amazing what you can have for just $1.50 more!” “YEEES!” I shouted silently as though I had scored an Issac Mizrahi handbag just before time ran out.

OK. So, I called to reduce my cable bill and fell for the upsell to another service. What I have now, aka Offer Two, is about what I had two years ago (I downsized then and miss the Tennis Channel) and for $20 per month less. Now I can watch the Tennis Channel through the winter and observe how shopping is done in other galaxies amidst my 500 channels. This experience, of course, confirms that competition is good for the consumer. A tip of the cap to our device in the bedroom, the tiny Apple TV box, that scared the big cable monopolist.

Tomorrow, I will wean myself of the $20 per month Netflix fee and register for the streaming only service.

12/23 update: we decided not to drop the 3 NF disks per month at $19 as their Streaming Service does not have a full range of films yet, meaning the complicated and usually interesting shows that Tessa uncovers such as In Treatment and all things British.

The Time Warner Cable up-sell turned out to be a $12 reduction in my monthly bill, a result of three trips to the TWC office for the correct cable box and cables. I admit that the phone support of TWC is vastly improved over two to three years. The across-the-counter experience resembles too much the DMV & TSA dispiriting transactions. Even though TWC is a local monopoly, their revenues are constrained resulting in employees from the lower end of the pay scale. The line in the store was 20 deep at 3:15 yesterday as a foreign family tried to interpret their media options in one window (finally the gent for whom the translations were being done, spoke directly to the cable agent in English. That was a hallmark of frustration!). In the other window, a young woman negotiated with the young man across the counter about what could she afford since she cannot afford what she has. He was quite helpful amidst his inquiries of her Christmas season and related plans. The rest of us waited in resigned amusement at the absurdity of the occasion. One is so happy to get away that one does nothing to improve the matter – just like exiting the airport. Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty…… Might have even tried MLK’s patience.

Somehow, when I traded my hdmi cable for the needed five prong cable, I was informed that I was only set for 4 HD channels and not the 50 promised and when she upgraded my service to 50, I had to be put on a 12 month special- which was not mentioned to me on the phone last week. And the 12 month special reduced my bill to $122.00 per month.

Re-cap: 5 days, 3 calls to customer service, 3 trips to customer service at the mall (one due to my error) later, I increased my channels including HD service while reducing my annual cable bill by $144.00.

Conclusion: monopolies are unsatisfying for all, including the employees of the monopolist. Health care fixers beware. Health care recipients be more aware. I’d go with Apple TV and drop cable completely if I could find an alternate Internet provider. Kind of the way that I feel about my land line. If I were more confident in my cell signal, I’d drop the line-line for sure.

Dept of All’s well that ends well: first program on my new cable box was watching Federer play Nadal in an exhibition match in Switzerland.

Making cents of my media & entertainment bills Pt 2

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Maybe the habit began when our son was an infant because it was in that era- before he grew to 6’2″ at 14- when he hit the rack at 7:30 so we would continue a TV series, usually HBO, as we had dinner. Sounds uncouth, I know, and having a child in the middle years of adulthood justifies offending the New Orleans sensibilities. We began with the X-Files, continued through the Sopranos and finished-up with Homicide unless, of course, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were on tv. Then the Brits invaded led by Foyle’s War and whatever else the cast thereof acted in next. About the only regular programs that gathered the family were The Simpsons (these days, I’m the lone man standing or sitting in this case), Mystery on Masterpiece and whenever either Tiger Woods or Roger Federer were on. Tessa can watch Tiger longer than I can! Our principal source of video entertainment were the three disks from Netflix and the PS2/3 for our son. Cable was only good for sports and as a break from PlayStation.

Katy Perry Simpsons

Spoofing The Muppets, they get way with murder. Moe not kissing KP’s naval. Joke at the end of the latest Christmas Special.

We can talk about PlayStation’s impact on US-Chinese competition some other time. Most days when his grades are good, I feel that the experience of a 60′ Hitachi screen (super deal from Circuit City) with Bose speakers from the pawn shop are way more compelling than clicking through ads to find mediocre content even for a teenager curious about the reality shows.

We tried the premium package of cable mainly for the Tennis Channel and we kind of enjoyed the improved picture quality of the added-cost cable box. Ultimately – this is circa 2007 – we returned to the basic cable package and resumed our Netflix fix.

Times change and so do the reimbursement policies for information services of the mobile employee. No longer could I ‘expense’ my office land-line and my cell number. Only one is permitted. No longer am I able to ‘expense’ my Internet service; the loss of which really makes the seemingly endless stream of shopping channels and crass reality shows difficult to ignore.

Thanks to Lost then Mad Men, we explored Hulu so we could enjoy the programming with annoying commercial interruptions. Catching-up on five years of Lost over the winter was a treat. BTW, I do not object to paying for content as you will soon read. Factually, when I signed-up for cable in its early days in the 1980s, I was promised no commercials in exchange for my monthly fee! Times change as do information and entertainment delivery systems.

I reached the point in fall, mainly as I assessed our income and expenses with the backdrop of the economic climate, that I didn’t now how much we were actually spending on these categories and whatever the sum, I never seemed to find anything on tv worth watching especially when I wanted to.

At the beginning of December, we paid for the following digital bits into the house:
1. Telephone service for the home: yesterday’s post. $65.
2a. Basic Cable service $68.
2b. Internet Access via our cable monopolist including premium class (the South Koreans are laughing)- $56.
3. Netflix – $19.
4. Mobile phone service, 3 iPhones and two basic, non-smart phone models (family & business use) – $244.
Total = $450.00 per month or $5,400.00 per year.

Having purchased an iPad in spring and observing how much our son enjoyed the streaming, at no additional cost, of Netflix, I decided to explore the recently available version of Apple TV. Now I understand even more about the future of the iPad and Apple’s consumer entertainment strategy.

As usual, the installation of this Apple product was as easy as could be- provided that one has a compatible HDMI cable lying around. Why aren’t these sold or recommended at purchase? Within only a few minutes, I viewed television episodes, photos and listened to music stored on the laptop, MacBook Pro, in my office down the hall. One can access additional content from iTunes or services across the Internet. Ironically, Hulu is not one of them (Netflix is). The Apple TV box which connects to an HD compatible tv is small and light; the remote control is small and simple to use. The system is intuitive to the point where you almost don’t trust it. Sort of like ‘is this all that I have to do?!’

Prices for programming vary from 99 cents to $6. We watched Green Zone on the spur of the moment on Saturday. Streaming was smooth except for two small interruptions at the end of the movie. Backtracking a couple of frames and resuming resolved the problem. Picture quality was excellent. Price was $5.99. Not cheap but the popcorn is better. This refers to a Thanksgiving holiday movie where we spent $40 for the three of us to see the new Harry Potter film. Nothing hurts like an unsatisfying, expensive expense at the theatre.

The next day I experimented with Apple’s Air Play and amazed the family by streaming content of every variety from both my iPhone and my iPad to our Apple-enabled HD TV. The surprisingly fun part was showing photos from the iPhone in enlarged, high quality on the Panasonic tv.

On Monday, I downloaded Facetime to my MacBook and conducted a conference call with a colleague across town. The quality of the video service was solid and I feel that the capability to see each other held our attention over the one hour discussion more than voice-only conference calls do. What are the others really doing, anyway?

With my information expense in one column and the capability to organize my own entertainment programming in the other, I intend to minimize my cable expenses to the most basic and for the needed Internet access; switch Netflix from dvds to streaming service; and explore what is the proper threshold for my mobile service. How I dislike seeing my roll-over minutes evaporate due to lack of usage.

My objectives are to reduce my bills by 20{915b2618a7c304f461205894c34b2284541042d3c677679407e2f30838792dcd} and to increase the quality and convenience of our family’s entertainment programming. At the business end of the experiment, I want to think about how the availability of varied media and the integration of media delivery platforms can influence training and education, both business and primary education. Mobility is becoming defined well beyond having to go to where the device or player is located – think driving to the office to talk on the phone or use the copier – to having the media available where content is most useful. Maybe this was the initial wonder of books? We’ll see.

Streamlining our monthly information costs, part 1: the cost of Freedom.

Monday, December 6th, 2010

AT&T is now the duo of the former Bell South and SouthWestern Bell. AT&T, in any legal construction, no longer supplies telephone service to my neighborhood which is a 3 wood to Duke University. I may live in Duke Forest but I do not live in the remote woods. Verizon, the former GTE, used to supply POTS to our home but sold such service to Frontier on 1 July.

Telecom industry tumult is not news as we all know that cell phones are replacing land-lines at a high-speed rate. Still, I have enough conference calls with never to be seen clients and colleagues that I want the best quality and most reliable service available. My outlook was reinforced again at lunch today when my client-guest called me on my AT&T iPhone which failed to ring in my pocket.

What truly inspired me to action was the realization and arithmetic, amidst the annual December flurry of birthdays (2) and Xmas debts (too many), that we’re spending too much on unsatisfying information services. Today, I’m beginning a campaign of calling my communications vendors to learn how we rationalize my monthly information costs. What will follow will be a roster of my results, a report in several parts or, at least, several calls.
Music Man Poster

2pm: Called Frontier, the former Verizon. Spoke with polite and knowledgable agent in Indiana. My current monthly fee is $47.99 for the Freedom Value Plan. Of course, one must weigh ‘what is the value of freedom?’ before hasty action, but I’m over that as I now ask ‘what is the value of value?’ or maybe ‘how can one become freed from value?’ and, especially, ‘do these guys have any value or values?’ Why the diatribe? Because my $47.99 plan gets to a bottom-line of $64.68 per month because of the number of hands along the way who require their share of the deal, aka Vig.

We politely compared which plans were best for me with the sense of foreboding at my end akin to the beef-cow brainstorming about ‘which ax would be better’ in conversation with the slaughter-house customer service rep. In my case, I was waiting for the up-sell to digital phone service, their version of cable service (FIOS) and in-home wiring maintenance plan which has to be the up-sell trick of all time. Have you ever heard of a phone wire going bad in a modern home? And should you pay $72 per year for the reassurance that the chap in the helmet will show up to trace-out that unreliable system?! If so, how often should I replace my car’s steering wheel?

We concluded that I could lower my bill by $25 per month if I dropped the unlimited long-distance. Upon further review, I learned that long-distance in my brave new world would become forty-five (45) cents per minute to any number outside of my calling zone. Not area code, calling zone or Central Office. My number begins with 493 after the area code. Dial out of this 493 zone, pay 45 cents per minute. Hmm? Could add up, I thought. Especially, if I want to telephone someone whose house that I cannot see from my upstairs window. As I balked at the math, like it would cost $4 to call Dominoes, Mrs. Hoosier opined that as my life may have future changes – Right Here in River City – she offered me my current Freedom package at a discount of $20 per month!!

That’s the kind of Value and Freedom I’m talking about. Just like that. Well, not exactly. I did receive the ‘which ax’ up-sell presentation which did not last so long because Frontier does not offer Internet access to my neighborhood nor the snazzy television package. In the end, about 15 minutes later, I reduced my land-line phone bill by $240 per year without a change in reach or features. I wonder what the cable company will say tomorrow?!