It's 2019. Why can't you cancel cable TV online?

Mandatory customer service calls are an antiquated practice that needs to go away.

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Getty Images/MikeyLPT

Earlier this week, I was on the phone with Spectrum, trying to cancel the company’s “TV Choice” streaming service after writing a review for TechHive. Although I signed up for the service online, the only way to cancel was through a customer service call.

This in turn required a conversation about why I wanted to cancel, a warning that my internet price would return to the “standard rate” (despite it never having dropped to a lower rate), and a pitch on wireless phone service. When Spectrum’s representative started asking me what kind of phone I was using and whether I was locked into a contract with AT&T, I lost my cool.

“Do I really have to answer all this?” I said. “I just want to cancel TV service.”

In fairness, the Spectrum representative quickly relented and went ahead with the cancellation. But in 2019, when people have more streaming TV options than ever, and nearly all of those options let you terminate service online by clicking a few buttons, it’s preposterous that cable and satellite providers haven’t caught up. We should no longer accept that cancellation remains an annoying, intrusive process. I say enough is enough.

Why canceling cable is hard

The obvious explanation for why cable and satellite companies don’t have online cancellation systems is because that would make the process too easy. TV providers would much rather send you to a retention department, where a customer service rep can question your decision, make you second-guess yourself, and possibly dangle temporary discounts as a last resort.

“Customer acquisition is expensive in a market that’s at near capacity, and so they do what they can to get people to stay, and to make it difficult to unsubscribe,” says Alan Wolk, the lead analyst for TVRev. “Lengthy hold times on phone chains are presumed to be part of the plan as well.”

Despite this assumption, I wanted to give cable and satellite providers the benefit of the doubt, because maybe there was some technical or logistical reason I hadn’t considered. Before filing this story, I reached out to Comcast, Spectrum, Dish Network, and DirecTV for comment. None provided an answer in time for publication.

It’s worth noting that some companies handle cancellation better than others. Comcast, for instance, lets you cancel service by filling out a form and emailing it, or by chatting with an online representative between the hours of 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern time. Neither option is ideal—especially given that Comcast allows customers of its Xfinity Instant TV streaming service to cancel online—but both are better than a mandatory customer service call.

The calling process itself has also improved over the years. With Spectrum, I reserved a place in line after wading through the company’s automated answering system, then hung up and got a call back when a human was available.

Yet none of this streamlining compares to the process of canceling a streaming service. With Netflix, you can head straight to the cancellation page and turn off your subscription with no hassle. Amazon also offers a direct cancellation link, while other services like Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and Hulu provide clear documentation on how to cancel through their online systems. Even AT&T’s DirecTV Now streaming service is much simpler to cancel than the company’s satellite offering. (These links aren’t hidden either; all of them received top billing in Google search results.) Cancelling service is no more burdensome than signing up, which is the way it should be for any subscription service.

Time to complain

Although cable companies have little incentive to offer online cancellation on their own, the law could compel them to make things easier.

In 2017, the state of California passed a law that requires an online cancellation option for any subscription service that accepts online signups. California Senate Bill No. 313 went into effect last July. It says cancellation methods may include (but aren’t limited to) a formatted email that customers can send with no additional information.

Unfortunately, cable companies don’t appear to be the bill’s intended target. Katie Henzlik, a spokeswoman for state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who introduced the bill, said its main goal was make companies provide clear notice and cancellation options when someone starts a free trial online. It’s meant to affect streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix more than cable companies like Spectrum. Richard Holober, the executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, which sponsored the bill, said he hasn’t seen any complaints come in about cable TV service either before or after the bill’s passing. In other words, people are so used to the ritual of calling customer service to cancel cable that they don’t even notice when the law affords a better way.

I think it’s time for this Stockholm syndrome to end. Instead of simply accepting that cable cancellation has been and will always be a pain, we should complain and question why it can’t be easier. For years now, cable companies have insisted that they’re trying to improve their historically terrible customer service. I see no reason why that goal shouldn’t apply to the act of reducing TV service or cutting it outright.

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