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Embracing Scare Tactics, the Cable Industry Still Doesn’t Get It

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Philosopher and writer George Santayana once wrote, “Advertising is the modern substitute for argument; its function is to make the worse appear the better.” While this might not be strictly true -- advertising in a specialty publication or to a niche audience with clearly defined needs such as Streaming Media, for instance, actually connects people with products they very much do need to do their jobs -- it’s certainly true of much of what we see in consumer publications and on television. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a worse example of an advertising campaign than the one launched in December by NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association).

The campaign, called “The Hole Saga,” is designed to convince cord-cutters of the value of a cable subscription. It consists of four short films, each one depicting a character in an absurd situation and facing impending doom -- doom that could have been staved off, apparently, if only the character had cable TV. One, for instance, features a vaguely Amish-looking man sitting on a log in front of a campfire, bemoaning the loss of his love to a ventriloquist’s dummy. As with the other three shorts, the viewer is given the opportunity to determine the character’s fate by clicking either “Give ’em cable” or “Cut ’em loose.” In this instance, if you cut ’em loose, the dummy immolates himself in the campfire; if you give ’em cable, a tablet descends from a tree, showing an incoming call from the man’s ex.

It was only slightly more painful to write that synopsis than it was to actually watch the ad. The films are kitschy and knowingly over-the-top, so perhaps there’s no point in criticizing the execution (or the grammar, I suppose). But even if the films make you laugh, three of the four fall victim to a more fundamental flaw (and proof of Santayana’s point): faulty logic. (I’d insert a “spoiler alert” here if these spots didn’t deserve to be spoiled.) Vaguely Amish dude is saved by video chat, while a bicyclist is saved by the news of an outbreak of mutant vampire bunnies and a naive traveler is saved by reading motel reviews on a travel site. Only in the spot featuring a scuba diver does an actual cable television program provide lifesaving information (although, since the lifesaving information is that great white sharks might kill you, perhaps this one falls in the “faulty logic” category as well).

In each case, the vital information arrives (or could arrive) via broadband internet rather than cable television. And while more and more people are cutting cable television, broadband penetration -- both in general and delivered via cable companies -- continues to rise. The vast majority of cord-cutters keep their internet subscriptions, and the latest research indicates that 5% of all people who’ve cut the cord watch video via broadband. Even if you include people who do have cable television, according to a recent study by the Fiber-to-the-Home-Council Americas, 70% of all broadband users under the age of 35 watch some of their TV programming online.

We cut the cable in our house in late 2012, and even though we have a digital over-the-air antenna, we still watch 90% of our programming via broadband. As Jose Castillo points out in this month’s Spicy Ideas column, finding what you want online just keeps getting easier. And, as has been the case since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced its “Home taping is killing music” campaign in the 1980s -- and probably going back to fears that the proliferation of jukeboxes in the 1930s would forever destroy the live music scene -- industry trade groups repeatedly miss the point when they use scare tactics to encourage consumers to hold on to modes of consumption that they’re increasingly rejecting. But few of those scare tactics are so colossally, and unintentionally, farcical as the NCTA’s latest attempt.

This article appears in the January/February 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Cable Industry Still Doesn’t Get It."

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