Cable TV — What’s Wrong with This Picture?

August 2012 View more

NMAG0812_FinanceWhen I was young, we had one television and only five available channels. Now I have a cable package with roughly 100 TV channels, plus Internet, and phone service—and a hefty three-digit monthly bill.

I need the Internet and want the phone service, but do I really need all of these TV channels? My husband chose our cable package, but how did he weigh the cost vs. benefit decision? How has our bill increased since the beginning of the contract, and when does our contract come up for renewal? If you’re like me, you’re too busy to check. You’re on autopilot and that’s precisely what cable and satellite TV companies are banking on.


Prioritizing your Favorite Channels

If you’re serious about trimming your bill, find your cable or satellite expiration date, and give yourself a month before expiration to plan your next move. Audit which channels you watch most consistently. If you enjoy HBO’s special programming, put HBO on your “must-have” list. If you watch Lifetime and the History Channel fairly consistently, place them on your “like” list. And so on. The “must-have,” “like” and “don’t care” categories will help you weigh the price of keeping or deleting program offerings.

Cable vs. Satellite

Cable and satellite companies don’t make it easy to do an apples-to-apples comparison between each other. That’s why you need a sheet to compare price differences for similar services. I looked at AT&T U-Verse, XFINITY (Comcast) and WOW, three cable vendors serving Naperville, and I was unable to get meaningful price details on their websites. That’s no surprise, since websites don’t sell as well as a trained salesperson.

An acquaintance, who sells for several cable companies, says that sales representatives give accurate information, but she confides that there may be sins of omission. Consumers must know precisely what to ask.

Questions to Ask:

Once you know what programming packages you’re interested in, and have quotes, ask the following questions:

  • Are there any other costs outside of the quoted price for the package(s) you’re interested in? For example, does the cost include the equipment, start-up fees, additional cost for high-definition service? Some companies don’t mention the cost of equipment or special services, only the cost of programs. Demand to know all specifics before they appear on your bill.
  • If you’re offered a special promotional price on XYX premium channel, how many months will that price be in effect? Does this service automatically continue if you don’t cancel it before the introductory period ends? What’s the monthly cost when the promotional period ends?
  • Does your provider offer different programming for each TV? Most people don’t know that, for example, your kids’ basic cable programming in the basement can be very different from the high-def TV, movie-rich programming in the master bedroom. Those differences mean money.
  • How much can you save by bundling your Internet, TV, and phone services? It’s usually substantial. However, don’t use the provider’s email address such as It’s harder to switch providers if you want to keep your email address.
  • If you’re unhappy with your cable service, what is your providers money-back guarantee in the first 30/60/90 days? You’ll never know how reliable your cable service is until you’ve signed on the dotted line. Service quality can be random, even from house to house.

Helpful Cost-cutting Moves

If you are a good negotiator, try getting a deal with your cable service provider in mid-stream of your contract. Finally, check out cheap options through NetFlix and Hulu. Both services allow you to catch your favorite programs on your schedule and at a fraction of the monthly cost of cable or satellite TV.