DirecTV needs to be saved

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Will somebody please buy DirecTV already? Let’s get this show on the road. Or in the sky. Or whatever the operative cliche is. I’m asking not as a critic, not as a distinguished and widely adored member of the press, just as a poor put-upon consumer. DBS is one of those great ideas whose time came and then seemed to go away again.
DirecTV, the company, has been in play for months now, and the negotiations have been so messy and maddening that at one point, I was actually rooting for Rupert Murdoch to take over. Yes, it was that bad. Now the main contender appears to be EchoStar, the only other major DBS supplier left, so that acquiring DirecTV would give EchoStar a virtual monopoly.
That prospect is pernicious enough for even FCC Chairman Michael Powell-mad Mister Marketplace himself-to question its propriety. In a relatively short time, DirecTV has gone from glorious godsend to satanic scourge.
I was tickled mauve when I first got my satellite dish years ago, even though the receiver and remote were kind of clunky and made by RCA, a company one associates with faded glory if any glory at all. But at last I was liberated from the fitful fuzziness my cable system delivered and the system’s mercurial attitude toward doing business-refusing to answer the phone, scheduling repairmen who never showed up, getting all snarly and mean if one’s monthly payment were even one day late.
Unfortunately, the folks at DirecTV seemed to take the discredited cable way as their business model. From the beginning, signing up for the service was complicated and cumbersome. You bought the unit from one dealer, then you probably had to find someone else to hook it up. This involved phone calls to RCA, a process similar to trying to reach Alice somewhere in Wonderland.
There was no control over two-bit entrepreneurs in markets served by DBS, so unscrupulous antenna installation outfits bilked people with absurd fees. I heard that some firms in my area were charging $150 just to send someone out to “survey” your house and see whether you had the proper exposure to the southwest sky. Then, if you did, you ponied up lots more dough for them to mount and aim the damn dish.
Service … what service?
This kind of bad behavior has apparently persisted. In September, DirecTV customers in metropolitan Washington voiced many a complaint about the poor service they were getting at the local level. “I politely told them where they could stick their dish,” one Maryland suburbanite complained to an inquiring reporter. She said the installer, who charged $50 for putting up her dish, arrived at 11:30 in the morning and was still futzing around at 10 that night.
He used the home’s old cable wires to connect the dish to the receiver and failed to ground the system properly. When it broke down last summer, the woman waited five times for five different repairmen who never showed up for their appointments.
“We called DirecTV repeatedly … and were placed on hold or disconnected,” grumbled a Gaithersburg, Md., man who waited three different times for installers who never showed up to set up his dish. He might as well have used it for a birdbath.
How incredibly, bewilderingly stupid did the satellite-TV people have to be to duplicate the mistakes of cable monopolies-rather than make every possible effort to avoid them?
Meanwhile, as far as I knew, DirecTV had no department of media relations or press relations or public relations or any other kind of relations. I never received so much as a press kit from DirecTV; no one from the publicity department, if there was one, ever called, not even after I wrote a piece hailing satellite TV’s superior picture and sound as being a light-year jump forward from cable’s.
I must’ve sold a lot of dishes for these boys, because people who’d been driving or walking by would ring my doorbell to inquire about the dish they saw attached to the house. I showed them the near-perfect picture and they flipped.
Eventually I graduated to a Sony system when the entry-level RCA system burned out. All the receivers, as far as I know, have a slot for what looks like a credit card that activates the system and keeps track of pay-per-view purchases. The card that came with the RCA system malfunctioned after a few months and wouldn’t allow me to buy any more movies.
When I got through to RCA and asked them to fix it, they said fine, they’d send me a new card. For fifty bucks. I should pay when their shoddy equipment was to blame? That was the policy. Sap that I am, I paid the fifty bucks and the new card arrived. Unfortunately, that meant another call to RCA to activate it. Never have I dealt with a company whose representatives were more rude or less informed.
PR … what PR?
Even when I tried to write about the satellite system, RCA’s so-called public relations people were evasive and snotty, too.
But for all that, DirecTV was still wonderful when it worked, and the outage rate (the signal has trouble getting through heavy rain or snow) was infinitesimal compared with that of my cable system. For a couple of years anyway, the system was virtually trouble-free. I was lucky to have a video dealer who knew an honest antenna installer in my area, so if there was a problem, it got fixed quickly.
In recent months, though, DirecTV seems to have been in national decline. The number of pay-per-view movies appears to have dwindled, while the price per title was raised by a dollar (to $3.99). Not that I was in a mood to shell out 30 or 40 bucks for a “Wrestlemania” extravaganza, but DirecTV suffered the humiliation of having to drop a pay-per-view wrestling event at the last minute because executives couldn’t come to terms with the World Wrestling Federation, producers of the show.
From here, the story of satellite TV looks like a simple but relatively spectacular job of taking a sure thing and then screwing it up. Doing a better job than cable should have been easy. It should have been a snap; cable had presented a marvelously instructive lesson in How Not to Behave.
Instead, DirecTV seemed determined to make the mistakes. It has a history not unlike those rock bands profiled on VH1’s “Behind the Music”-you know, one minute up and the next minute backstage battles and folks overdosing and all hell breaking loose. So please, somebody buy the darn thing. Go in there and kick ass and knock heads and clean house. Liberate us, please, from this poor excuse for liberation.