Why did I freak out over big cable? One thing that really sent me over the edge – there is another – was the fact that paying for television violates both the traditional square deal, and the new understanding. In the traditional square deal, you “pay” by watching commercials. That advertising value covers the costs of making and presenting your broadcast entertainment. Everyone accepted this. Then cable said, we’ll make this a little better, but you have to pay. A few monopolies and some cash handed to free market politicians, and all of a sudden regular taxpayers have a $200 monthly bill for something that used to be free. Cable has come under fire by cord-cutters, a visceral label I actually enjoy. But cable isn’t the only one testing the traditional deal. Let’s take a look at the rest of our lives, and let’s exercise a little dollar democracy.
Gyms. Who the hell needs to pay for this crap. Whether it’s $30 a month at antiseptic 24-Hour Fitness, or $161 a month at the tight-faced Sports Club LA, a price that’s actually the “rally discount,” there’s something off with this. We have sidewalks for running. Parks for soccer and baseball. And floors for pushups. Nelson Mandela stayed in shape in solitary confinement by running in place. This is what hit me as the unctuous sales person was walking me through the labyrinth that is the Sports Club LA, attached to the Four Seasons. I would be paying twice. We pay taxes for the upkeep of our parks. Franklin Square in the Mission has a soccer field. It’s pretty much empty in the morning, except for the mom pushing her stroller and the two kids actually kicking a soccer ball around. I pay for this soccer field. So I run around it. Better than running on a treadmill looking over Union Square shoppers. Actual ground. And not even actual ground, it’s that spongy stuff that protects the city from liability lawsuits. It’s actually amazing on the joints too. So after I had this epiphany, I realized paying for a gym is like paying for cable. It’s an extra $200 for value I’ve already paid for. No sale.
But perhaps even more insidious than charging twice, is the business that merrily collects twice from two customers. I’m looking at you, US mobile phone carriers. First of all, your service is overpriced for quality that sucks. It’s not the phone, and it’s not the limits of the technology. It’s you. I know this because my iPhone performs like a fracking landline in England. Plus, when someone calls me, you charge me for the call. WTF. You’re collecting from both of us. Holy crap. This is one of the reasons I cheer for companies like Apple. First they break your stupid ugly clunky one-line mobile game selling scheme, then they add better visual voicemail, and now they’re taking advantage of the Internet connection to bypass your overpriced text messaging with iMessage. Go Apple. If it takes an Apple to slowly boil this warty frog, so be it. But your days of violating the square deal are numbered, big mobile.
And yet, we don’t have to go back to 1950 to have a respectful customer relationship, there is a new understanding. I was on a panel yesterday at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference, and the moderator asked us if free to play is ruining the customer relationship. What an interesting point of view to pose the question! I didn’t get to reply on stage, but now I’ll say it’s actually doing the opposite. Giving people a chance to sample is genius. It’s the Neal’s Yard cheese at Whole Foods and the 2-pound bag of tortellini at Costco. Try before you buy is everywhere. It’s very natural. People start reading books in bookstores, listening to songs on the radio, download demos of $15 and $60 games, and now play full social games for free. It works. It’s a meritocracy. Does that work for services? Would it work for tax preparation software? Cable? Mobile service? Medical care? Maybe social is a bit socialist, but I wonder if it takes a fresh callout to make cable and mobile carriers shake a little bit. Their value is debatable, stroking their fat white cats in their mid-century modern lairs, and they certainly haven’t earned a double-dip.
Spoken like a man who owns 16 copies of Star Wars.
SF: I really didn’t need another reason to be upset at my mobile carrier Jamil. I view the train wreck on the cable side as one of the most elegant examples of why monopolies don’t work for the consumer — high prices, inferior product and terrible customer service. It’s all very upsetting.