TVstuff: Disable the Cable?

“Don’t panic.”

That’s what the Time-Warner Northeast Ohio customer service representative told me this morning. I think she was mistaking the irritation in my voice for fear. I’ve been a Time-Warner Cable television customer for all of 70 hours and already I’ve had to call customer service; this does not bode particularly well for our burgeoning relationship.

At issue: the Viacom debacle. As near as I can figure it, Viacom wants to wring more money out of Time-Warner for channels like Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and MTV. Because apparently people still watch MTV. Time-Warner, naturally, doesn’t want to shell out the dough, claiming that they’d have to (surprise!) raise their rates.

This morning, Viacom decided that negotiations weren’t going to cut it, so they resorted to something akin to extortion: a crawl across the bottom of their networks imploring Time-Warner customers to contact their cable provider if they didn’t want to lose shows like SpongeBob Squarepants when the ball drops in Times Square. ((Happy New Year!))

At the International House of Johnson we do occasionally watch SpongeBob Squarepants, but losing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report would be a deal-breaker. We rarely watch anything else on Comedy Central, because 90% of the programming on Comedy Central is crap, but The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are pretty much the only two shows that Laura and I watch together.

The Viacom crawl is, in my opinion, hitting below the belt as far as negotiations are concerned. It’s certainly not unprecedented, but it’s kind of a dirty trick. Viacom is essentially threatening to take their ball and go home if Time-Warner doesn’t play the game to their liking, but their crawl makes Time-Warner out to be the bad guy. According to one source, the price hike Viacom wants is triple the increase from their previous contract with Time-Warner, which translates (per Viacom) to roughly 25 cents per month per Time-Warner Cable subscriber. ((Time-Warner claims that this could set a precedent for other networks to demand higher rates and result in a $30-per-year increase for customers.)) The crawl, quite naturally, fails to mention any of this.

But the crawl is effective. Laura asked me about it first thing this morning, as she’s not at all keen to lose Nickelodeon or Comedy Central, so I thought I’d give Time-Warner a call. The number provided in the crawl was experiencing “technical difficulties”, which I took to mean “a flood of calls from angry parents whose children want to watch SpongeBob tomorrow”.

At this point, I know that Viacom is playing dirty, but I called Time-Warner Northeast Ohio anyway. I was greeted with an automated message assuring me that negotiations to keep the Viacom networks were underway and wouldn’t I please just hang up because that’s all they could tell me.

Unfortunately for Time-Warner, they’re the new kid on the block as far as television providers in the International House of Johnson are concerned, and I was already annoyed to discover that having a digital cable box and subscribing to “extended basic” service is not the same as having “digital basic” service. ((Translation: Our current service plan does not include Noggin (another Viacom network, the one that features all of Kyle’s favorite shows), BBC America or the basic OnDemand features.)) Oh, and their installer was 30 minutes late on Monday.

So I waited on hold for a customer service representative. Poor Barbara got a bit of an earful as I explained that, should the Viacom networks disappear from my lineup, Time-Warner’s reign as the television provider in my house would be a very, very short one. My DirecTV receiver is still active ((In fact, the television was tuned to Noggin on DirecTV when Laura saw the Viacom crawl this morning.)) and my digital phone service has yet to be installed, so it’s just a matter of who I call Monday morning to inform them that their services will no longer be required.

I’m not panicking, I’m just annoyed that—having been a satellite television subscriber for seven years with only two issues that I can recall—I switched to cable and wound up on the phone with customer service after less than three days.

UPDATE: Time-Warner CEO, Glenn Britt has issued a statement. Additionally, Viacom has allegedly threatened to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers from accessing their free online content, such as episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

UPDATE: It certainly appears that Viacom is planning to block Time-Warner Cable Internet subscribers, if the pop-ups on sites like MTV.com are any indication. So, even though I currently put pennies in Viacom’s pocket because I’m still paying for DirecTV, because my Internet access is through Time-Warner I won’t be able to access free content on ComedyCentral.com. (I’ve seen the pop-up myself on that very site.) That’s really playing dirty, Viacom.

FINAL UPDATE (01 January 2009): Well, it looks like Time-Warner Cable and Viacom have reached a “an agreement in principle“, which means 13 million households can spend New Year’s Day in Bikini Bottom after all. As an aside, if one of your New Year’s resolutions was “no cable rate hikes”, you’re probably going to be breaking that one sooner than you expected.