The Scams and Sexism Hidden in Your Cable Bill


I have come to realize that there are actually three things in life that are inevitable. Death, taxes and professional sports. The second two items go hand in hand.

I care not a fig for glitzy, large-scale, athletic competitions, and yet I am bombarded with news of grown men getting paid to tackle and throw balls at each other almost daily. Through my newspaper subscription, I support entire sections devoted to games and scores that don’t concern me. I subsidize professional sports teams through my taxes. According to a recent report in Bloomberg, U.S. taxpayers have kissed goodbye $4 billion through tax exemptions and other schemes to build fancy sports structures with retractable roofs and whatnot since 1986. Structures I will likely never visit. Franchise owners make out like bandits, and I receive little in return.

Travis Waldron and Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress have devoted several articles to explaining why these kinds of subsidies are poor investments for economic growth. Stadiums don’t pay for themselves, as promoters claim, and they divert resources from vital services, like roads and bridges, firefighters and public pensions.

David Sirota has just added a new layer of insult to my injuries. In a recent column, “The Sports Tax,” he outlines the various ways I’m getting hustled, including one I hadn’t thought about much, because I only recently caved and got cable TV (I used to be able to get basic channels in my NYC apartment using deftly positioned rabbit ears, but no more). My Time Warner Cable bill, which combines phone and Internet -- and doesn’t even buy me HBO -- is nearly $200 per month. Flipping around the channels, I have a hard time comprehending what justifies this price. As Sirota explains, a large chunk of what I pay goes toward expensive sports channels like ESPN and Sports Net:

“The third Sports Tax is embedded in your cable television bill. Though this levy is not itemized on your bill, the Los Angeles Times reports that up to half of your total cable payment is ‘for the sports channels packaged into most services.’ That's because the sports stations tend to charge significantly higher rates than other outlets, and yet are automatically included in most basic cable packages, thereby preventing ratepayers from opting out. The result is a tax obligating those who do not watch sports to subsidize those who do.”

Have you noticed your cable bill going up lately? Perhaps by as much as 40 percent? That’s because TV deals with big-name sports franchises are pushing them up, says the LA Times:

"’We've got runaway sports rights, runaway sports salaries and what is essentially a high tax on a lot of households that don't have a lot of interest in sports,’ said John Malone, the cable industry pioneer and chairman of Liberty Media. ‘The consumer is really getting squeezed, as is the cable operator.’" Those who actually watch sports—and I don’t fault them for it – are not getting a better product for those higher prices, but “smaller slices at higher prices.”

While the LA Times puts the percentage of your cable bill that goes to sports channels at 50 percent, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic counters that it’s really only 15 percent. In any case, I’m getting bupkis for that cost. Thompson notes that while ESPN gets $5 a month from every household, MTV only gets 39 cents. Why is that?

On top of that, the emphasis on pro sports makes TV look like crap. I recently watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in high definition and it looked dreadful. I could see the stage makeup on Steve Martin. The lighting was garish. The whole experience made it seem that I was watching an acting class, rather than a film. This is known as the “soap opera effect" because it makes things look like the kind of cheap video used for soap operas. I am told it’s possible to fiddle with a labyrinth of settings and connections in order to mitigate this, but what a pain. And why does TV look like this? High definition is primarily exciting to sports viewers who want to see the fast action and minutia of every play. It’s less appealing for many dramatic presentations where mood and nuanced lighting is critical. And it is particularly cruel to older actors and media figures who must struggle to conceal every wrinkle and often end up Botoxed out of recognition.

But it’s the high prices that are pushing TV viewers to the breaking point. With options like Hulu and other Internet sites where television viewing is free, there’s less reason to fork over increasingly exorbitant sums for the privilege of not watching – or even watching – sporting events.

Final gripe: there’s more than a little sexism going on in this state of affairs. Though I am not one of them, many women, including feminists, care about professional sports, but there is only sporadic television coverage of female-dominated games and events. Media attention to female athletes is often focused as much on their physical appearance and skimpy outfits as their skills. Female sports broadcasters have been the objects of contempt, a fact displayed crudely by CBS’s Andy Rooney in a 2002 comment, “The only thing that really bugs me about television’s coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Sports coverage tends to reinforce stereotypes and separation between men and women.

Hulu is looking better every day.

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