Not Without My TiVo!

My apartment is one of eight units in a little horseshoe-shaped complex that was built in 1940, which means this year it reached retirement age. Officially, the apartment is “quaint,” in that it is made of brick and has hardwood floors and high ceilings. In practical terms, it is a lot like a 65-year-old person, in that it’s always cold and has a peculiar odor.

Prior to my occupancy, the apartment was inhabited by an elderly couple who lived in it for 40 years before finally moving to a retirement home, or possibly dying. I am not sure what their lives were like. All of the windows in the non-air-conditioned apartment had been painted shut (it’s cold now that it’s fall, but in the summer it would have been unbearable), and despite cable TV having been invented sometime within the 40 years that they lived here, they never took advantage of it. There were no cable jacks anywhere in the unit; the place never became cable-ready.

Not that I needed cable. I’m a satellite man. Which brings me to my story. While Landlady Peg was showing me the place this summer during my apartment hunt, I was making a mental list of its amenities and began to think out loud. I said: “Oh good, this wall faces the south, so I can get a satellite dish….”

Peg, eavesdropping on my out-loud thinking, said, apologetically, “No, no dishes. We don’t want them on the building.”

I accepted this without argument. It seemed reasonable that a property owner could forbid satellite dishes being mounted on the building if he or she wanted to. I figured I could get cable with its accompanying TiVo-like DVR product and it would be a tolerable substitute for my preferred DirecTV/TiVo combination.

So I contacted Comcast. I had never dealt with them for cable TV purposes, though I had enjoyed their cable Internet in my last apartment. I had no reason to believe that hiring their services would be problematic; surely even a company as large as Comcast is always happy to acquire a new customer.

This line of thinking proved to be naive. As it turns out, Comcast is deeply embittered by the prospect of new customers. They resent them at near Microsoftian levels. I learned this first when I went to their Web site, where I discovered that some of their best prices are offered only at the kiosks you find in shopping malls. In other words, there are certain deals that would surely entice people to sign up with Comcast — but they refuse to make it easy for you by just offering you those deals when you call them on the phone or visit them on the Internet. You have to go to the mall and talk to a teenager at a kiosk.

So I did this. I talked to a teenager at a kiosk. He was named Brandon, I guess, probably, since that’s what all teenagers are named. He enthusiastically told me about a particular deal they had on a cable TV and Internet package, and it sounded reasonable, so I decided to set it up. I gave Probably-Brandon the address of the apartment, and he entered it into the computer.

That’s where the trouble began. My apartment was not in Comcast’s database. Since the unit had never had cable before, Comcast did not acknowledge its existence. In Comcast’s view of the world, there are two types of dwellings: those with cable-readiness, and those that are imaginary. This third, mythical kind of place — a place where people live but do not have cable — is beyond the scope of Comcast’s belief system.

I explained to Probably-Brandon-But-Maybe-Tyler that the previous tenants had lived there for 40 years and never acquired cable television, and that yes, I knew that was strange. He said Comcast would need to send someone out to the place to have a look and make sure there wasn’t some reason that cable had never been installed, like maybe the walls were made of adamantium (like Wolverine’s claws), or something. That seemed unnecessary, but reasonable. He said someone would call me in a couple days. This was three months ago, and I still haven’t heard anything.

In the meantime, I mentioned my satellite situation to a friend, who insisted landlords are not legally permitted to deny a tenant access to satellite service if the tenant so desires it. I did some checking and found the FCC’s rules on the matter. (You can read them here.) Basically, you can get a satellite dish whether the landlord likes it or not if the dish is placed somewhere that is exclusively yours — for example, a balcony or patio that only accesses your apartment, that is not shared with other tenants. If you have no such place, and the dish would have to be put on the roof or an exterior wall or some other “common” area, then you’re at the mercy of your landlord, who can say no if he wants to.

Well, guess what. My unit has a private area! (That sentence did not contain double-entendre.) (But that one did.) There’s a back door from the kitchen that leads to a little stoop, or a porch, a couple of steps down before you get to the sidewalk. And it has a railing, which is a fine thing to attach a satellite dish to. I read and re-read the FCC rules to make sure I was in the clear, and ordered up my beloved DirecTV/TiVo.

Now, you’re thinking the same thing I was thinking: What will Peg throw when she sees that I have acquired a dish? A fit? Me out? But it seemed from her brief explication on the matter that her opposition to dishes was having them on the building — i.e., potentially damaging the roof or exterior walls. This is understandable. I wouldn’t want you nailing things to me if I were 65 years old and made of brick, either. So since I had found a way to install the dish that wouldn’t hurt anything — I was even having them bring the wires in through the window, to avoid drilling a hole in the wall — I figured Peg and I would both be happy, or at least one of us would be happy and the other one would be apathetic. And if Peg was upset by the dish, I had the government on my side (for once).

The DirecTV installer came on a Tuesday. That Friday, there was a knock at my door. When I opened it I found Peg standing there, looking peeved and holding a wrench. She was at the complex to fix a plumbing problem (hence the wrench) and had seen my satellite dish (hence the peeve).

“Eric, I couldn’t help but notice you had a satellite dish, after we specifically talked about that!” she said. But I wish you could have heard her tone of voice. I wish this column had audio capabilities, and that I had recorded the conversation. Mostly the latter, I guess, since this column does have audio capabilities and I just never use them. She sounded hurt, like I had personally offended her. Her voice had the tone of one who had established a long, healthy relationship with a person based on a shared disdain for satellite dishes, only to be betrayed when that person violated everything she stood for by obtaining one behind her back.

I said: “Ah, yes, well, I had understood your objection to be to putting a dish on the building, for fear of damaging it, so when I found a way that wouldn’t hurt the building, I was glad….”

“No, no, we don’t want them anywhere, at all,” she said.

Here is where things became awkward. I was going to have to play my “the FCC is on my side” card. But what I had to say, basically, was, “The FCC says I can have a dish if I want to, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me, SO THERE.” And there’s no polite way of saying that.

So I summoned all my powers of tact and said, as non-argumentatively as possible, “Well, I looked into it, and the FCC says that a tenant can have a dish without the landlord’s permission if the dish is someplace that is exclusively the tenant’s domain, like a balcony or a patio, like mine is.”

Peg replied: “I would be very surprised if that were true.”

Well, you’d better sit down, then, I thought.

I said, “I can e-mail you the FCC’s Web site where they talk about it.” She said that was a good idea and left, still hurt and confused and wielding a wrench.

I e-mailed her the link and didn’t hear anything back. It made me nervous. I lived day-to-day, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for her to find a loophole in the FCC rules, or to hire contractors to come remove the stoops from all the apartments’ back doors. But I vowed not to give up my satellite or — especially — my TiVo without a fight.

Surely Peg and I could reach some kind of compromise, I thought — some kind of compromise where I do absolutely nothing and she gets over it. Surely that wasn’t asking too much.

After a while, I figured either she had calmed down and realized the dish wasn’t hurting anything, or she had checked the FCC site and accepted that the law was on my side, or she was assembling her team of lawyers. Finally I received a letter in the mail from her team of lawyers, which answered that question.

The letter, however, was not instructing me to remove the satellite dish. Peg and her lawyers seemed to have ceded that point. Instead, the letter dealt with the way the dish’s cable came into my apartment. I told you earlier I had the installer bring it in through the window. Trouble is, sometime before winter, Peg’s handyman will be putting up storm windows on all the units. A storm window doesn’t do much good if it can’t close all the way because there’s a thick wire coming in underneath it. Hence, the lawyers told me, I needed to find a new way of bringing the satellite wire into the apartment.

I was baffled. I considered every one of the apartment’s other orifices and apertures, trying to figure out how else to bring that satellite cable from the dish to my TV. I could think of nothing.

Then I re-read the letter, which had suggested some possible solutions. One of them was: “Through an existing hole in the wall.” I thought: What do they mean, “an existing hole”? Why would there be a hole in the wall? Then I remembered: for cable TV. That’s how cable TV gets into your house, usually, through a small hole drilled in the wall. But as you’ll recall, my apartment had never been brought into the 1980s and the world of cable television, so there was no hole. But wait! I bet the other apartments aren’t occupied by elderly Luddites….

I raced around the building, looking for cables. Sure enough, all of the other units had black cables snaking along the outside before entering through — ta-da! — a hole drilled in the wall, one hole into each apartment.

I called Peg’s lawyer — Peg and I were now communicating strictly through lawyers, not directly — and offered this solution: I will have the satellite installer re-route the wire through a new hole, which he will drill in the wall. Why should this be an acceptable solution? Because if I had decided to get cable TV instead of satellite, the cable installer would have had to do as much, since the apartment had never had cable before. Surely Peg would not try to stop me from watching television altogether. Ergo, it should be acceptable for the satellite guy to make a hole in the wall, provided it is no larger than the one the cable guy would have made.

“Indeed, sir,” said the lawyer, in my imagination. “You have proved it!”

She did see the logic, though, checked with Peg, and let me know a day later that my solution was agreeable. I had the procedure done, and the matter was resolved.

But I think back to that week where I didn’t know what would happen to my TiVo. It’s funny how sometimes it takes a traumatic experience to make you appreciate what you have. I’ve always loved my TiVo, of course … but somehow now, after this ordeal, I love it even more. We spend more time together now, sure. But it’s the quality of the time that’s really important.

I hope my story inspires you to let your TiVo know how much you appreciate it. Clean out its “Now Playing” list more often. Don’t let old sitcoms sit there after you’ve watched them. Don’t tell TiVo to record things you have no intention of viewing. It deserves better than that.

Here’s to you, TiVo. You complete me.

This is a very lengthy column, one that I never could have published back when I worked for a newspaper. So it's a good thing I don't anymore!

Luddite: Someone who opposes technological advancements, named for Ned Ludd, who supposedly destroyed laborsaving weaving equipment in the 1700s for fear the equipment would put too many workers out of their jobs. He was probably right, but still. Technological progress is a good thing.