Cox Suckers

Shedding tiers over IFC

The Independent Film Channel is, in my opinion, one of the most important new channels on television. In a world where more channels does not necessarily mean better product, we should seize this opportunity and celebrate it; give it attention, nurture it and make sure it survives.... I hope this channel lasts a long time.

-- Tim Robbins on the IFC Web site

First, a pair of young Japanese wayfarers argues over who was the best rock 'n' roller, Elvis P. or Carl P. A widow en route to Italy totes her dead husband's remains, then sees the ghost of Elvis in gold lamé. A trio of outlaw drunks, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles, knock off a liquor store, ditch the cops and wind up hanging out with Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the night clerk. All this in a seamy Memphis hotel inhabited by the spirit of Elvis, antiquated low-lifers, against a backdrop of dislocation in Jim Jarmusch's 1989 film Mystery Train.

Thanks to its random collection of rock 'n' roll greats/ghosts strung on short-story narrative, Mystery Train all but defines the spirit of the Independent Film Channel. It's a liberally scripted jaunt that triggers and entertains, is literate and funny, and lets go with uncertain endings.

Mystery Train is the first thing I ever saw on the Independent Film Channel (IFC). And in a world that seems populated entirely by people and institutions bent on making themselves look bigger, IFC is small. Soothing like good fiction. IFC is all about films struck from the insight of the genre's most unfettered filmmakers. There are no soundtracks packed with songs made by pintsize poseurs. No casts of international bright young millionaires with capped teeth.

Debuting in September 1994, IFC was the first network dedicated solely to independent film, those made outside the Hollywood system. All films are shown in their unedited form and are commercially uninterrupted 24 hours a day. IFC presents feature-length films, premières, documentaries, shorts, animation, new works, cult classics and masters.

In November, Michael Stipe played host for IFC's Indie Rocks Festival, a weeklong celebration of the best music in film. Berkeley in the 60's, Woodstock (Director's Cut), REM: This Way Up, Trainspotting, Manny & Lo, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Falling From Grace.

Of course, conventional wisdom says anything worthwhile won't be hanging around for long. So on December 1, our friends at Cox cable made the Independent Film Channel less available and more expensive. In its place on expanded basic cable is the Discovery Health Network.

The Cox Web site says Discovery Health is the pre-eminent source for information on health, medicine and wellness. To make room for this "exciting new health network," the Independent Film Channel will move to the Cox digital cable movie tier of programming.

I called Cox to ask about the logic of removing IFC from its basic expanded service.

"That programming change decision is something that has been in the works for quite some time," said Bruce Smith, a Cox PR flack. (This Bruce is a woman -- really.) "We've identified an opportunity to align Independent Film Channel with our digital movie tier, and we've added the Discovery Health channel on our analog tier. And that's pretty much the story."

Digital cable is supposed to offer sharper images than its analog predecessor. One doesn't have to run out and purchase another set; you rent a converter box and remote for a little more than $3 a month from Cox. A "tier" is just another word for particular interest grouping. A digital "sports tier" is exactly what it sounds like.

To get IFC, you have to spend a minimum of $7.95 a month for the movie tier package, plus $3.18 for converter and remote (plus tax) on a Cox digital basic. And that is on top of what you already pay. Installation is another $9.95 if you're already mainlining.

What if you don't give a damn about a slightly enhanced picture? Doesn't matter -- you are penalized anyway.

So if you want to watch IFC, you've got to cough up more cash and live in select areas. And if you subscribe to the digital tier, you'll be saddled with movie channels running the typical romance/action/Western gamut. Sundance, a network spotlighting indie films, shorts and documentaries, much like IFC, is included in the digital tier, making the deal appear sweeter.

The whole thing reeks of a ploy to soak more cash out of Cox customers. Or make bigger mouth-breathers out of you.

Why couldn't Cox have dumped MTV, USA, TNT, TNN or E! Television into some digital tier?

Smith explains that the Cox digital tier is a new service being rolled out to the market. But, she said, the digital service is not available right now to all 610,000 Cox analog customers but should be available "to 70 percent of our customers by the end of the year."

I checked, and found it's not available in my neighborhood.

My friends subscribed to cable primarily for one reason -- IFC.

And these are musician/artist/student/drunk types who already can't afford their $30 to $40 monthly cable bills.

"I am fucking furious," says Martin Mathis, a computer consultant for Modis Incorporated. "... IFC is pretty much the only channel I love watching. They show offbeat movies, have no commercial breaks and apply no censoring as to speech or nudity. We're already paying $38 a month for this. To get the digital movie tier, that would put another $12.95 a month in their pockets. Instead, they now feed us the exciting Discovery Health channel on channel 74."

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