Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Economics of Being a Basketball Fan, Part 2: Choosing a Television Provider

Today’s entry continues my discussion of economic decisions of a basketball fan and focuses in on one specific element: television service. If you’re a basketball fan, you need television. While there’s generally no better way to watch basketball than by heading out to an arena or gym to watch the game live, television brings you far away teams that you wouldn’t otherwise see, the opportunity to see your favorite local team when they’re playing in far away places, and expert analysis on any number of channels. Indeed, college basketball is so intertwined with television that it has literally changed the rules of the game to accommodate broadcasts. It is virtually impossible to follow division one college basketball without watching it on television (I actually wrote a paper on this topic entitled “College Basketball and Television: A Revolutionary Change of the Last 20 Years” back when I was in college. And since you’re thinking it, yes, I do sometimes question the value of my communication arts degree.). Fortunately, these days we’ve got an array of options for how we receive our television programming. And it is with careful thought that I have typically chosen my television programming provider.

While getting the best cable or satellite provider for my basketball-heavy programming needs is something that’s usually floating somewhere in my mind, it’s currently at the forefront. Improving technology, a desire for great value, and perhaps most importantly, my current lack of a contract commitment, makes this a logical time for me to reassess which programming provider, if any, can best meet my needs. I’ve weighed pros and cons of the five most obvious options in my area and have listed those thoughts below. Before I get to those, though, two things that I should preface my analysis with:

1) While basketball programming is arguably the biggest factor in my choosing a television provider, it is certainly not the only factor. I like other television programs (as will become clear as I make my decision on which provider to go with), I like technology that makes my life easier, and above all else, I like value.

2) I have direct experience with only two of the options below. I was a Time Warner subscriber from 2003-2006 and have been a Directv subscriber from 2006 to the present day. This colors my analysis a bit. I feel like I know Directv fairly well at this point, and while I think I know Time Warner, some of my thoughts are admittedly probably a bit outdated (though Time Warner’s prevalence in Milwaukee means that I see it all the time at the homes of my friends and family members). The other options are things that I’m speculating about. For the most part, I try to be informed, but nothing beats first-hand knowledge.

On to breaking down the contenders:


Why Would I Stay With Directv?: It’s virtually impossible to find a channel, sports or otherwise, that Directv doesn’t carry. The Sports Pack, at $12.99 per month, has more regional sports channels than I could ever use (which allows me to find most Marquette games that are not televised on local free TV). And unlike with pro games, college and high school games don’t get blacked out. Mega March Madness, while overly expensive (and potentially obsolete with the NCAA’s new television contract for the NCAA tournament this year), is fairly awesome. It’s tough not to like the customizable on-screen guide, which allows you to filter out those weird niche channels that you’d never watch, like QVC, or the Big Ten Network from April through August, when all it’s showing is track and gymnastic meets. Changing up programming or setting your DVR on Directv’s website is remarkably easy, too. And aside from my basketball needs, I do like getting to see Friday Night Lights before the rest of the world does.

Why Would I Leave Directv?: You pay for what you’re getting, and Directv costs plenty. Directv’s business model of charging an initial fee (which feels like a purchase, even though it isn’t) to obtain a box and then charging a monthly rental fee to rent the box feels like double-dipping. I’d much prefer it a lot better if Directv would just pick one of the two ways to separate me from my money and stick with it. Also notable is that except in rare circumstances, any piece of new equipment comes with a new fee and new 2-year contract commitment. Thus, you’re prompted to think long and hard about whether you really want to upgrade to the latest and greatest new technology. On a personally bitter note, this issue first came up for me a week after my initial Directv installation. When I questioned a technician about why I was not receiving local channels in HD from the satellite, I was told that my current box didn’t work with the new technology delivering those channels and that I would need to upgrade to a newer box at a cost of $300. Being told that I needed to upgrade from soon-to-be obsolete equipment one week after said equipment was installed was not exactly something that I was excited to hear.

Time Warner

Why Would I Switch to Time Warner?: Time Warner Sports Channel has the rights to several Marquette and UWM games, which range from mildly challenging to impossible to see without said channel. It also shows various high school games throughout the year, has talk shows with local guests and fills its remaining time with shows where they interview washed-up old Milwaukee Brewers. Basically, it’s a channel targeted directly at me. And the On Demand features of Time Warner allow one to pull up the season’s high school games at one’s leisure, which is pretty cool. From my days as a Time Warner subscriber, I recall that they had a nice extended sports package. While less extensive than the Directv Sports Pack, it gave me everything that I needed. It was only $5.99 per month at the time. I’m sure the price has gone up in the last four years, but it’s a good bet that the Time Warner sports package still costs less than Directv’s. I already have Time Warner’s internet service, and bundling that with cable could potentially save me some money. Finally, the fact that there’s a Time Warner service center at the mall near my house ensures that service is always easy to come by. And unlike the fees and commitments that come with Directv upgrades, I recall upgrading my old Time Warner equipment with at no additional cost or commitment by simply exchanging it at the service center.

Why Wouldn’t I Switch To Time Warner: I won’t recount the full details of my last Time Warner cable installation experience back in 2003, but the end results were this–three lost Saturdays for me, a $100+ credit to my account, and a week’s unpaid suspension for the technician that handled my installation. I’ve come to accept that it was an isolated set of bad incidents, but the experience still taints my view. (To Time Warner’s credit, when I had internet service installed in 2006 at my current home, the installer was outstanding in pretty much every way possible.) I’m probably not saving much by switching from Directv to Time Warner, and I’m losing the NFL Network, which to my surprise, is a pretty outstanding channel. And there are probably one or two other great channels that I would lose, as well. While I would like the Time Warner Sports Channel, I can get most of the Marquette games (and some of the UWM games) that they show on random regional channels on the Directv Sports Pack. And in the event that there’s a game that I don’t get, my gym has Time Warner. So I can watch Time Warner Sports there AND force myself to get in a workout. Thus, one could argue that not having Time Warner Sports in my home is actually making me healthier.

AT&T U-verse

Why Would I Switch to U-verse?: Friends that have the service have generally said good things. While other providers are now offering whole-house DVR, U-verse has had that capability for awhile, so all of the kinks are probably worked out. It appears to be the one option that actually would save me a reasonable amount of money (assuming that I switched over both my television and internet service to them) even before the initial sign-up rebates and discounts, which are significant. A sports package is offered, and from my experience with Time Warner, I know that even though the U-verse sports package likely isn’t as extensive as the Directv package, it will still probably have everything that I truly want. The lack of a mandatory contract commitment (you’ll still be facing a contract if you’re looking for a deal) is a plus, because unlike Directv, I won’t necessarily have to ponder if I want to lock myself in for another two years before deciding on making changes to my services.

Why Wouldn’t I Switch to U-verse?: Interestingly, I’ve made the decision to switch to U-verse in the past and have unsuccessfully attempted to switch twice. In each instance, I made an online request with AT&T to set up an installation date and was subsequently denied service. Upon calling AT&T to confirm why I was denied service, I was informed that it was for reasons related to my credit. This somewhat bewildered me for two reasons. First, I was under the impression that I had a very good credit rating. Shortly after my denial I pulled my files with each of the credit bureaus and confirmed this to be the case. Thus, it is unclear to me what issue AT&T has with my credit. Second, I’ve had AT&T wireless phone service for somewhere in the neighborhood of five years and have never missed a payment. Given this long history, it’s a bit frustrating that AT&T will gladly accept my money for one service that it offers, but won’t even offer me the opportunity to subscribe to another one that I’m interested in. The experience makes me question not only the idea of attempting to sign up for U-verse again, but also whether I will continue with AT&T wireless phone service when my contract is up.

Dish Network

Why Would I Switch to Dish Network?: Back in grad school when I lived in the rough, low-income area of Madison (Note: This speaks to how great Madison is. In how many other cities can you live in the bad part of town and have a wooded bike trail 100 feet from your apartment?), lots of people in the neighborhood had Dish Network, implying that it may be a cheaper option. So there’s the idea of saving some money, which is always attractive. Last time I glanced at their offerings (which was admittedly some time ago), I was intrigued by their multi-room DVR and the ability to sign up for service without locking into a contract (albeit at a slightly higher price than for those with contracts).

Why Wouldn’t I Switch to Dish Network?: I’ve never had a friend with Dish Network who has had particularly good things to say. Its resolved standoff with Fox Sports leaves me with some concern over future deals, as getting key channels blacked out is never fun. Furthermore, with the satellite providers, the old way of thinking (and it may be ancient at this point) was that Dish Network was for people serious about movies while Directv was for those serious about sports. You can guess which category I fall into. Whatever the reason, I’ve not given too much serious thought to signing up with Dish.

Canceling All Service

Why Would I Cancel All Service?: Obviously the total lack of a monthly bill is the benefit here. I had a friend recently give up cable service. He has reported that with his antenna picking up the local channels in crystal clear fashion and the ability to connect his computer to his television, he hasn’t missed out on anything that he’s wanted to see during college football season. And if there was any game that he wanted to see, but couldn’t get at home, the cost of going to watch a game or two at a bar probably still wouldn’t add up to the monthly cost of cable. Maybe technology really can get me all the games that I want to see without the need to pay a provider. It seems clear that my computer can get me every non-sports program that I want.

Why Wouldn’t I Cancel All Service?: It seems like my sporting options would be at best, a hassle to find and watch and at worst, incomplete. Call me lazy, but I like the ease of being able to scroll through my channel guide and pick out the game or program that I want without putting much thought into it. I think the day is coming soon when it will be common and advisable to cut ties with one’s cable/satellite provider, I just don’t think I’m there yet. Let’s give the technology a few more years...

My Final Decision

As with everything else, it’s complicated. Here’s my tentative, two-part plan:

1) I’m definitely sticking with Directv for the next few months. Based on my experience, I like the service, despite its high cost relative to competitors. More importantly, Directv is currently airing the final season of the television program Friday Night Lights, months before NBC will get to air the program. While it’s sort of pathetic that my love for one television program could drive this decision, that’s exactly what’s going on here. (Seriously, check this one out on DVD if you've not already seen it.)

2) When Friday Night Lights ends forever (with 12 episodes left, I’d guess this takes me to February), I’m making one final attempt to sign up for AT&T U-verse service. While it lacks some of the dazzling programming of Directv and Time Warner, I believe it’s the best value of the above options. So, I will be excited to sign up if AT&T decides this time around that it is willing to accept my money. If I’m again denied for unknown credit reasons, I’ll likely remain with my pricey, but solid Directv plan (and perhaps lock into one of those annoying 2-year contracts in order to do some equipment upgrades that I’ve been holding off on for years). I’ll also be canceling AT&T phone service and finding a company that doesn’t view me as a bad risk, but that’s an entirely different story...

I recognize that, despite my modest attempts to keep up with things, I may be off-base in a few ways in my analysis of this one. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below or e-mail me directly if you think I’ve missed something or completely misread one or more of my options. Clearly this is not an issue that I take lightly.


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