A Bagful of Sugar Rot: Is Subscriber 'Support' Just Some Kind of Trick in the Pay-TV Provider Wars?

When CNN and six other channels suddenly vanished from Dish Network on October 21 due to failed contract negotiations with content provider Turner Broadcasting, I decided to go along with the gag, for one of my masochistic little experiments in customer service.
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CNN sucks. It has for years, with fire-in-the-dumpster ratings evidenced by experiments in Breaking News (as in, Breaking for Commercials -- do NOT move from your chair!), covering one catastrophic story at a time for four to six weeks, and the incessant swapping out of shows, producers, and career journalists reduced to "personalities" in an attempt to keep up with the accelerating array of relevant alternatives.

Today, that's pretty much left a CNN pure-news marquee of Anderson "Cute Giggle" Cooper, Erin "Groomed Eyebrows" Burnett, Jake "Perpetually P.O.'d" Tapper, Candy "Why Can't We Get Her !?@#%^!! Hair Right?" Crowley and Wolf "Will HE Ever Retire?" Blitzer. Though, to its credit, CNN seems to have disappeared the expensive-journalist-eliminating "iReporting" of human drones with smartphones.

It sucks. But not like the instant eye-watering dimple-inducing SweeTarts, Pixie Stix and Smarties I loved trick-or-treating for in the time of old pillowcases for the loot -- that prehistoric era before Martha Stewart and Williams-Sonoma came out with perfect pumpkin-carving and bat-shaped cookie making kits. No; CNN sucks as in sitting on the shag carpeting the day after Halloween, assimilating in broad daylight what seemed a big score of dazzling sugar swag but which, really, is just a pile of bright, cellophane wrapped junk. (In a fair imitation of CNN, my county newspaper wrapped its day-after Halloween report with, seriously, "Local dentists could not be reached for comment.")

So, when CNN and six other channels suddenly vanished from Dish Network on October 21 due to failed contract negotiations with content provider Turner Broadcasting, and we hapless Dish subscribers were handed off to a thing called www.DishStandsForYou.com, I decided to go along with the gag, for one of my masochistic little experiments in customer service. Not that I missed CNN, exactly -- like the favorite sister who somehow always drives you nuts -- but the hassle of switching satellite providers, subscriptions, equipment and so on is something I look forward to, well, like dentists look forward to Halloween.

What my little customer service jihad turned out to mean was toggling for three hours between Dish.com and DirecTV.com chat windows. With deadly politeness, "negotiating" between what Dish is willing to offer to mollify my disaffected-customer threats, and DirecTV for what it will do to acquire my valuable account that has just walked up and rung its e-doorbell without the slightest effort on its part. Hardball, on the second round, meant negotiating for a $5.00 reduction in my $119.00 monthly bill for ten months, plus lifetime HD, if I stay with Dish. DirecTV came back with, logically, nothing except to strafe us with new-subscriber marketing. There, apparently, everything known to man is free for three months, including equipment, before the real deal kicks in. On a two-year contract.

We all know that we all go into live online "customer support" chats aware that, foremost, honey catches more flies than vinegar (you never know how you might be punished offline by popping off online -- a Denny's waitress telling me, when I was 19, that their disgruntled cook got fired for throwing dead flies into the hamburger grease is indelible) and that, second, the front-line customer support live chat person paid to take the next crazed stranger in the queue has a script. In this case as most, an exceedingly mannered autoreply no front-line millennial could come up with -- not in 1.5 seconds at the expected uptight, obvious questions. The Dish instant autoreply lays blame for the entire mess on Turner's greed, and sympathetically thanks us, the abused customer, for our patience. No promises.

Jeff Zucker, who, after establishing NBC's "Today" as the long-running #1 network morning show, became CEO of NBCUniversal in 2007 and subsequently led the network's fall to fourth place -- then, was hired in 2013 as president of CNN Worldwide, reportedly confided to a few people that, a few weeks into CNN,

the job was much bigger than he had expected. The scope, and the challenges, of CNN's round-the-clock, live global news operation were vast and daunting. Prime-time ratings at the domestic cable news network had plummeted to its lowest in two decades. The international arm covered dozens of countries. And while audiences were flocking to CNN on the Internet and on mobile, revenue lagged.

Like the rest of the news business, CNN has focused intently on expanding its digital operation. Despite broader layoffs, CNN has added about 50 employees in the last five months to its online division. "In many ways, digital is the entry point to the CNN brand now," said Kenneth Estenson, senior vice president and general manager of CNN.

Well yeah. Major media (and by that I mean any conglomerate-owned media platform originating out of New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Sunnyvale, Omaha or a yacht somewhere in the Tasman Strait) is playing a codependent game of chicken as to who's going to admit first that, if it doesn't have "mobile," "streaming" or "on demand" all over it, it's irrelevant. But the fact remains that, whether cable, satellite or rabbit-ear analog, broadcast is still the sine qua non of major media. If only just, and only with some kind of cool digital hyphenate. And still it seems that the old dot-com problem of how to monetize news on the Internet hasn't been solved, except when newspapers cut out delivery trucks, paper and presses. Oh, and reporters, editorial cartoonists, and comics pages. The OJT at CNN must really be something this year.

CNN, which has developed some remarkable exclusive content such as "Blackfish," the redoubtable epicure Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown" and the Tom Hanks-produced series "The Sixties," is still the only 24-hour "all-news" broadcast channel that isn't arcane (CNBC, Bloomberg), half a planet away (BBC, CCTV) or click-at-your-own-risk, biased assaults nearly rattling our teeth out of our heads (MSNBC, Fox News). Those off-CNN alternatives had already begun to be my imperfect default, before this Dish-Turner flap, for just avoiding unremitting Progressive Insurance ads, though, if it's not Flo it's mesothelioma, Christian Mingle or that blonde British chick persuading guys to refill the Rx and "finish what you started."

So, OK. I've decided that my big scary thing this week will be opting for Dish's so-called temporary replacement for CNN Headline News -- Al Jazeera America. It's spooky to see that elegant Arabic-calligraphy flame logo as an American news brand, but probably the worst that could happen is that former VP and Current TV owner Al Gore and now Qatar-owned Al Jazeera America, which took over Current TV's signal last August -- themselves in a protracted legal fight over "misrepresentations, " -- might show up at my own door. Along with now-Al Jazeera America news veterans Soledad O'Brien (ex-CNN) and John Seigenthaler (ex-NBC, MSNBC). And probably the FBI.

Ha, ha. Trick or treat.

I'm handing back the equipment, saving $119.00 a month and getting all my news on the Internet from now on.

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