The Frustrations of a Modern Consumer

The more products and services that are available to the modern consumer, the more hassles he must endure

It's time for another rant.

About four and a half years ago I moved into my first home. It's a nice little house out in the country on about 30 acres of land. It's peaceful, reasonably secluded, and pretty much everything I was looking for. There was only one problem. I couldn't get cable TV in that location. Actually mine is the fourth house on the road beyond where the cable service stopped. I called Time Warner Cable, and found out that I would have to pay out of my pocket the full cost of running cable to my house. That alone was prohibitively expensive, but Time Warner's penchant for adding insult to injury took it one step further. I was told that every other house between me and where the service ended also had to pay the same amount. I knew that would never happen. To foot the bill all myself I would have had to pay around $4000. All this for the privilege of paying a monthly fee for television programming. I went to Radio Shack and purchased one of those big, ugly rooftop antennas for about a hundred bucks.

This worked out reasonably well. I was able to get ABC, CBS, and NBC. I could get PBS audio, but not a suitable picture. On a good night I could get FOX. This was okay for the Simpsons, because it's a brightly colored animated show. But my other FOX favorite, the X-Files, which is always shot very dark and shadowy, was pretty much off my list. With rare exceptions, I would actually be able to see what was going on, but generally I had to watch snow with static-ridden audio. I eventually stopped watching the X-Files altogether.

About a year ago I decided it was time to look into a mini-dish. I wound up with the Direct TV service and I've been pretty happy with it. I got FOX a la carte, and I relied on the antenna for ABC, CBS, and NBC. On some occasions there was actually an advantage to having the antenna. I'm not much for spectator sports, but I love to watch Buffalo Bills football. Sometimes the Syracuse station wouldn't carry the game, and I was able to rotate the antenna to other nearby cities and always wind up finding it. Things were going okay.

The more time that went by the less I wound up watching network TV. It was amazing how I could go from watching the networks exclusively to not watching them at all. The insipid sit-coms, once the mainstay of my viewing habits, no longer polluted my brain with vapid plots and sophomoric humor. The only show I watched with any regularity, once Seinfeld called it quits, was Friends. But the proportion of all-new to re-runs episodes (aka signal-to-noise ratio) has so utterly bad this season that I barely even watch that show anymore. In the end, all I was watching was Good Morning America, ABC Evening News, and Buffalo Bills football.

Things continued to go okay until the Fall and Winter of 1998. The frequent wind storms we'd been experiencing had taken their toll on my antenna. One day I found that I had no signal at all. When I rotated the antenna I suddenly got a clear picture. It didn't fade into clarity. It just went "blink" and there it was. I figured the socket where the wire plugged into the antenna was lose, and rotating it re-established a connection. When I was lucky. It got to the point that I had to rotate the antenna to the edge of the reception range to get the cable to connect. For a couple weeks I was watching double-images of everything on the screen. I got a flashback to my old boozer days.

Then one Sunday I was getting ready to watch the Bills game. When the season started I didn't expect them to win a single game all year. But when Doug Flutie took over, things changed. In fact, the season wound up being quite exciting and there was a real chance they could wind up in post-season play. But when I turned on the TV there was no signal. I rotated the antenna 360 degrees a few times, and still no picture. Fortunately it was an unseasonably warm and sunny December day, so I decided to climb up on my roof and see what I could do.

Lowering a huge antenna like that can be deadly work. There were no power lines in my way, but holding an unsupported, 3 meter lever arm with a heavy weight at the top end is tricky work when you have both feet planted firmly on the ground. Standing precariously on the edge of a rooftop is one step away from suicide. Fortunately I was able to get it down with no mishaps. When I inspected the connection I immediately saw what was wrong. There is a pre-amplifier at the genesis of the system. Two wires come out of it which attach to the antenna itself. Then the coaxial cable which comes from the house attaches to the small component. Inside the other end of the cable attaches to a larger amplifier that plugs into an electrical outlet. The little pre-amplifier appeared to be shot. I had to pretty much destroy it to get it off the antenna and disconnected from the cable. I put it in my pocket and hopped in my car.

On the way to the store I pondered how lucky I was to live in a civilization where I could drive just a few miles from my country abode to a store that I knew would have exactly the arcane little component I needed. I seem to be very good at foreshadowing, and still oblivious to it at the same time. I walked into the local radio shack, and despite the fact that it was the holiday season a salesman was standing right there ready to help me. I pulled the mangled component out of my pocket and showed it to him.

"I need one of these," I said.

"No problem," he said, and led me to the back of the store. He pulled something off the rack and handed it to me. "Here you go," he said.

I looked at the product. I saw the little component I needed, but also the large amplifier that plugs into the wall. "I don't need both of these," I said. "I just need this one," pointing to the small component in the clear plastic package.

"You have to buy them both," he said.

"But I don't need them both," I retorted. "This amp works just fine" I said pointing to the larger component. "I just need this one," I said holding up the mangled pre-amp.

"Radio Shack doesn't package them separately," he said plainly.

I wasn't sure what to do. I don't much care for surprises at all, but especially not in a consumer situation such as this. I wanted to rant and rave to the guy about my suspicions that Radio Shack makes a faulty pre-amp that doesn't stand the test of time and then forces you to buy the more expensive power amp so they can sell more product. But I knew that this poor guy had no control over how Radio Shack packages and markets their products. I decided to quietly turn around and walk out without saying a word. I spun around and walked for the door.

"Bummer, huh?" was the most productive thing the guy could say as my back slowly moved farther and farther away from him.

I wanted to spin around and scream, "Yeah it's a bummer! It's a REAL fucking bummer!!! Blah blah BLAH!!! Blah blah BLAH!!!" But I didn't. I just kept walking.

"Wait a minute..." he called out.

I turned around. He walked behind the counter and pulled out a catalog. I was a little peeved that he didn't suggest this in the first place. I KNEW that Radio Shack MUST sell that component by itself. They'll sell anything individually right down to the tiniest little diode. He leafed through the tome for quite some time as I stood there, forced to endure the sight of all their holiday tripe.

Finally he looked up. "I can special-order it for you."

"How long will that take?" I asked.

"About a week," he said, "delivered to your door."

I thought about it for a millisecond. Today was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. I expected that in a week it would be cold, probably gray, and with my luck windy with sleet or freezing rain.

"Nope," I said as I continued my retreat.

In the car on the way home I thought about the other Radio Shack outlets I could call to see if they had it. But eventually I got fed up. "Fuck it," I said to myself. "I'm not watching much network programming anyway. I might as well just stop altogether." I felt empowered by my decision. As soon as I got home I disassembled the antenna. From day 1 the cable had been clumsily draped across my roof and run into a window that always had to be left slightly open. It was a real joy to rip that down. Everything was good.

Then, 3 days later, I logged onto to search for information about a guy I used to work for in Syracuse who pled guilty to criminal business practices in Federal Court. On the home page I saw that the US was getting ready to strike Iraq again. I was totally oblivious to this. Without the ABC Evening News every night I was already falling out of touch with current events. I decided to call Direct TV and order up ABC from their a la carte packages. I'd ordered services over the phone before, and they'd always been activated by the time I got home.

I quickly went to Much to my surprise and dismay, I couldn't find a phone number for them. After browsing several pages I finally found a 1-800 number and dialed it. I got one of those annoying automated answering systems. As soon as I heard the "Order Programming" option I hit the button. Pretty quickly an operator picked up. She asked me for my Direct TV account number. Of course I didn't have it with me, but she took my phone number and punched up my record in a jiffy. She found that my subscription went through a third-party company and I had to call them. She gave me the number. It was also a 1-800 number.

I hung up the phone and called the other number. Once again I got an automated system which introduced itself as "Pegasus Satellite Programming." I understood Pegasus to be part of Time Warner Communication. This was not a good sign. Time Warner is the Evil Empire of modern consumer life, in my opinion. After I got my mini-dish I figured I'd never have to deal with any of them or their tyranny ever again. Alas, I sat patiently and waited for their list of options. 1 activate a new account; 2 questions about your bill or payments; 3 primetime 24 or network issues; 4 order a pay-per-view movie; 5 problems with your equipment; 6 questions about sports programming. There was nothing about adding services to my programming package. "Hmm," I though. "I guess Time Warner isn't interested in selling programming. They sure as Hell don't make it easy for you to do."

I stayed on the line and waited for an operator to pick up. After not too much time I was greeted by a listless, raspy voice that I believed to be female. I told her I wanted to add ABC to my programming package. I was relieved because I was finally nearing the end of my journey. I expected her to say, "Okay, it'll be on by the time you get home."

Not so fast. She said that I had to call ANOTHER number and get authorization to receive broadcast channels over the satellite transmissions. They had sent me some literature about this some time before, but I didn't look at it too closely. I knew that the networks, or more accurately their affiliates, were creating a real stink about satellite transmissions taking away their viewer base. They had lobbied for legislation preventing satellite programmers from selling broadcast services to anyone unless they get certified as unable to receive the services by antenna. I had to get approved from the authorization service, and then it would still be at least TWO WEEKS before the service would communicate my authorization to Pegasus. So much for hearing what Peter Jennings had to say about the Iraq situation that night.

While I had her on the phone I asked her about getting Buffalo Bills football. I knew that Direct TV had a "Sunday Ticket" service that provided pervasive football coverage. I knew this because their advertisement really rubbed me the wrong way. It pictures a young couple at a supermarket counter. The husband says, "We'll take some Rice, and..." while his wife chimes in with "Get some Favre too." The camera pans back to show Jerry Rice and Brett Favre sitting in the display case. The narrator goes on to explain the wonderful "Sunday Ticket" service while football players are wheeled around in shopping carts with other products being tossed on top of them. The reason it rubbed me the wrong way was because it depicted professional football players as dehumanized pieces of meat. I was really surprised that they would subject themselves to it. But it did give me the impression that the consumer was able to pick and choose which team they wanted to follow the way the young couple picked their players out of the deli case.

Not so fast. She said that it's all or nothing. I would have to purchase it as a package. I had to get every single football game or none at all. I asked her about the "Sunday" ticket label, if it was a misnomer, or if it only covered Sunday games. Now I was asking for trouble. But I had to ask because I knew that Buffalo was playing on Saturday the next week. Nope. Only Sunday games. Fine. I didn't really expect I'd order that package anyway.

Now I hung up the phone and dialed the broadcast programming authorization number. At least this time the lady warned me to expect an automated system. Of course the first thing that the system asked me was to punch in my Direct TV account number, which I didn't know. I pretended to have a rotary phone so I could talk to a human and have her look up my phone number like the others had done. Instead I got a voice recognition system that told me to speak my phone number. Much to my surprise it understood my perfectly. Within seconds it had the results of my authorization request.

"You are NOT authorized to receive ABC because you live in a reception region. You are NOT authorized to receive CBS because you live in a reception region. You are NOT authorized to receive NBC because you live in a reception region. You are NOT authorized to receive FOX because you live in a reception region. You are NOT authorized to receive PBS because you live in a reception region. Thank you. Good bye." [click].

Now I was REALLY pissed off. I don't care what "region" I live in. I'm in a valley, and I could barely get any reception at all, and I DEFINITELY couldn't get PBS (not that I really wanted it all that bad, but the idea!). I closed my eyes and held the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. If you want something REALLY fucked up, give it to a legislator. If this was the best system they could come up with for the moderately complicated issue of broadcast versus satellite transmissions, I fear for the future of the Internet.

Now I was back to my stance of rejecting network programming altogether, and even more determined about it. Fuck them. They could have had me watching their national advertisements, but now I'll be watching none of their advertisements at all. Their viewer base was just diminished. It was diminished by a single, sole, insignificant individual.

Sometimes I think I'd be happier if I moved out into a teepee in the forest behind my house.

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