Thursday, July 10, 2008

My New Channels

Most of what follows isn't going to make much sense to many of the people who are going to read this, but it illustrates a number of things. Or maybe I just want to do some writing. And if, by doing a bit more writing I get some of you off your hands and voting in the poll then that qualifies as a good thing. The little tale that I have to relate today is going to ramble around a lot because this post is positively designed to go off on tangents.

On Friday I was finally stirred to action by my mother and added some new channels to my Digital Cable service. I've had Digital Cable since a couple of months after the digital specialty services were introduced in September 2001. It has been an interesting ride. The first three months were a trial period that let you really get your feet wet. There were a number of stations that were mandated as "must carry services" by the CRTC, meaning that cable companies that were offering digital specialty channels had to carry them. These "Category 1" services earned that by programming a high percentage of Canadian produced content – somewhere in the 70 to 75 percent range. It didn't take me too long to figure out that most of these services weren't anything that I really wanted. These were networks like FashonTV – all fashion all the time; iChannel – TV about public, social and current affairs; One: The Body Mind and Spirit Channel – focused on the issues of "natural health, personal growth, new ideas, holistic lifestyle and intriguing possibilities"; BookTV – TV devoted to books and literature (which is broadly defined enough they can show The Paper Chase and Batman).

I made my initial selections based on a deal Shaw has that allows customers to great their own packages. At the time you could take individual channels or you could pick five, ten or all of the channels for less that the base priceper channel. That's essentially what the Parents Television Council wants every cable company in the United States to provide for every cable channel, but it isn't practical for every channel unless the system is entirely digital –no analog cable signals at all – where every subscriber has to have a digital cable box to receive a signal. That's because the cable box essentially a computer that can be programmed to block or allow through specific signals, and changes can be made from the local office while you're on the phone with them. For analog systems such changes would require individual mechanical connections made at the point where the cable to the house connects to the main line – impractical both in terms of time needed to customize each customer's order and in terms of cost. Based on other sources I am given to believe that there are no Canadian cable systems that 100% digital, and presumably the same holds true in the United States.

At the time that I got Digital Cable the 10 pack of channels suited me just fine. It allowed me to pick and choose the individual stations that I wanted without being bound by "theme" packages that forced me to take things I didn't want. Indeed at the time Shaw didn't offer themed packages, (today they only offer two – one for sports and one for movies) beyond what you get automatically when you got Digital Cable. Indeed, Shaw didn't even require you to subscribe to their premium movie channels to get the four US Superstations (WSBK, WPIX, WGN, and KTLA) which virtually every other cable and satellite company in Canada requires. For the most part, over the years I've been happy with the channels that I picked (particularly when they've accidentally given me channels for extended periods of time that I haven't paid for). So here's what I've been getting over the past few years:

  • Independent Film Channel – the place where I saw Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman and parts of some of Ingrid Bergman's Swedish movies.
  • The Documentary Channel – where I made the acquaintance of Dennis Hof, Air Force Amy and the rest of the gang on Cathouse not to mention Taxi Cab Confessions (those people have no shame).
  • BBC Canada – where I lusted after Anna Rider Richardson, was amazed at Charlie Dimmock's denial of undergarments, and watched the complete run of Coupling and knew that the Americans couldn't do it justice.
  • Tech TV – where Leo Laporte and Patrick Norton made me a geek and I lusted after Pat Boone's granddaughter (Jessica Corbin). But Patrick, Leo (and Jessica) are gone now.
  • Deja View – Canwest Global's answer to TVLand...but not as good. The only choice in Shaw-town though.
  • Discover Civilization – allows me to indulge my interest for archaeology and other bits of esoteric knowledge.
  • Fox Sportsworld – This used to give me the world of Soccer and other non-North American sports but these days most of the games are on tape, there's no cricket, no Aussie Rules, and "International Fight League" is inflicted on the viewer.
  • Lonestar – I bought the channel with western movies and TV shows. More on this shortly.
  • Showcase Action – mostly action movies and TV series.
  • Showcase Diva – mostly chick flicks and romantic movies (just remember, chick flicks have the best nudity).
  • BBC World – BBC's world news service.

In addition, over the past few years they've added MSNBC, the National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, American stations from Spokane Washington, and Cosmopolitan TV (hey, it's a place where I can see Veronica Mars) to the Digital Basic line-up.

However over the years Shaw's packages have changed. Today they offer 7 and 14 packs instead of 5 and 10 packs for the same price. Of course they haven't exactly made a lot of fuss about it – like telling people that the changes have been made. Unless you've had reason to contact Shaw Customer Service you've literally gone on paying more for less. About a month ago when my mother contacted Shaw about a problem with her bill after we got the HD-PVR box. During the course of the conversation, the Customer Service rep mentioned that we really could be getting more channels for the same amount of money. My mother put me in charge of selecting the added channels. I finally got around to it last Friday.

The first thing that I decided to do was to rid myself of Lonestar. As I mentioned the network had started out as a western oriented network – showing things like The Big Valley and Bonanza. Despite an abundance of product they never seemed to show a lot of the shows I expected – no Maverick or half-hour Gunsmoke. More recently they stopped showing westerns altogether and started showing action movies and TV shows. I already have Showcase Action and they do the genre better. So, once I was clear on the deal that was available to me I told the Customer Service rep that I no longer wanted Lonestar. The conversation went something like this:

She (shocked and amazed): You don't like that channel?!

Me (shocked and amazed that she is shocked and amazed, but not showing it): No I don't. What I signed up for was a channel that showed westerns. It's become a cheap knock-off of Showcase Action and I already have that.

She (no longer shocked or amazed, rather fully understanding and even showing some sympathy): Ah, I understand.

After that the whole procedure went just fine. I named the stations that I wanted and she added them. And best of all, when I got off the phone and was able to turn on the TV less than a minute later, the stations were all activated. My new stations are these:

  • Bold – When this was called Country Canada and focused on the rural lifestyle I wasn't interested. But CBC, which now owns it outright, has converted it with sports including rodeo and equestrian events, arts and culture programming, and programming that includes the current Doctor Who and The Lone Gunmen.
  • Travel & Escape – the name pretty much says it all. Travel to places you aren't likely to go to on your own and see and do things you're not likely to see or do on your own (probably because you can't afford to).
  • BBC Kids – I didn't order this channel just to watch Liz Sladen on The Sarah Jane Adventures...but it didn't hurt. The network not only provides content suitable for my nephew but after about 8 o'clock (my time at least) it starts showing more mature shows including Little Britain, Blackadder, Hollyoaks, and classic Doctor Who.
  • GSN – It used to be The Game Show Network and it's probably the only channel I know of that is proud – to the point where they actually promote the fact – that one of their shows was awarded the PTC's Seal of Approval. Me, I watch the network for the Poker, and the classic game shows like I've Got A Secret and What's My Line? are bonuses.
  • Gol TV – I am a soccer fan and this channel has a number of the Central and South American leagues as well as both the German Bundesliga and the Spanish La Liga. It doesn't have everything I'd want, but I'm not paying $14.99 a month for the English Premier League – heck I wouldn't pay that for porn.

I think that I've got the best stations – at least for me – that I can choose from. But there's a problem, because of the channels that Shaw makes available to me. I have nothing but good things to say about Shaw Cable's local service. When they schedule an appointment they show up on time which I'm given to understand isn't always the way it is with cable companies. Where I do have problems is with the upper levels of the company's management. The big thing in this story is the way that Shaw decided to pick and choose the Category 2 stations that they would accept. Of forty-nine Category 2 English language Digital Cable channels (not counting the HD channels) Shaw carries twenty-four. There seems to be little explanation of why some channels were taken and others weren't. Only one digital music channel is available (not that that matters to me). Only one Category 2 station originally owned by the CHUM group was included, a Canadian version of Court TV that was only added because Shaw carried the American network until the Canadian version replaced it. Only one of the three stations formerly owned by Craig Media was offered. On the other hand four of the five channels owned by Canwest Media were offered (and the exception, the jazz channel CoolTV was offered in Manitoba) as were all of the channels in which Alliance-Atlantis owned a majority stake – those channels are now owned by Canwest Media as well. I'm not suggesting that I would have made different choices if a fuller range of stations had been available. After all I only picked two Category 2 stations the other day, and I'm not unhappy about the choices that I've made. My major concern however is the paternalistic attitude exhibited by Shaw Cable in deciding what I, the consumer, should be allowed to choose from. Of course, given the attitude of company CEO Jim Shaw towards the Canadian Television Fund and what amounted his demands that "his money" because it doesn't produce programming he thinks is suitable (he has long complained about the funding that goes to the series Trailer Park Boys) not to mention his repeated demands for the "right" to bring in more American services without restriction (notably HBO and ESPN), this probably shouldn't be unexpected.

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