Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

The application of Sod's Law to normal life, while frustrating, has a certain sort of panache. Spotted the perfect coffee table, the one you've spent the past 10 years hunting for? Sod's Law will rule that your bank account is not only empty but your overdraft puts the current US trade deficit to shame.

Gone on holiday over half-term to a country cottage in the Highlands that has no phone so you can get away from the stress of modern life? Sod's Law will dictate this is the moment for your central heating to break down back home, necessitating expensive phone calls to British Gas 500 miles away, while standing in the only spot where your mobile will pick up a signal. And that spot is, of course, in the middle of a large puddle.

Whoever Sod is, he's a very clever fellow, with a sense of comic timing that would put Jack Dee to shame. But if you want to take fiendish frustration to a whole new level, combine the law of Sod with sophisticated technology, preferably in the field of cable and satellite television.

Once upon a time, there was only one channel and it came in black and white. Today, there are, allegedly, dozens of channels, all in colour. I say allegedly, because I haven't seen many of them.

Don't get me wrong; there's nothing I'd like better than to lie in front of the telly watching re-runs of Jewel in the Crown and Inspector Morse on ITV3 all day long. But apart from all the other things that come between me and the screen (work, kids, homework, housework, more work), it's often difficult to find the right programme to suit my mood when I finally sit down at about 11.38pm. And it's especially difficult to find the right programme when Sod's Law has stepped in.

The cable and satellite version goes like this. You sit down to watch Desperate Housewives or Have I Got Old News For You only to see a blank screen. You ring the provider to be told to reboot your system. Turn it off and turn it on again, they will probably say.

You scrabble around in the tangle of black cables behind your television, like Jamie Oliver cooking squid-ink pasta, only to find that when the system does reboot, you're getting BBC4 on channel 26 instead of ITV3, which has suddenly gone AWOL. You flick feverishly through 800 channels only to find when you finally locate ITV3 that (a) the programme has finished or (b) something completely different is on anyway.

Seething with impotent rage, you vow that next morning you will transfer to another provider, only to realise in the cold light of day that there IS no other provider, because you can't get cable in your area, which means you have to have Sky - or if you can get cable, there's only one company doing it.

The astonishing thing about this travesty of viewer choice and customer service is that we seem so happy to pay through the nose for it. (There seems to be another law at work here: the more you pay for television, the crappier it seems to get. Murdoch's Law, perhaps.) The average satellite or cable package (the sort where you get to watch the footie and the odd decent movie every three months or so) costs about £50 a month. That's £600 a year. Yet it's common to hear people whingeing about the television licence fee, which gives you access to all the public service television and keeps at least two channels clear of ambulance-chasing insurance company adverts for a sixth of the price.

So what can you do? Ditch your cable or satellite subscription, as we did, and buy a Freeview box, as we did (you still get the rebooting glitch and the phantom channel-moving, but at least you're not paying £50 a month for the privilege). If you live in the London area, a company called Homechoice offers what it claims is genuine television on demand via broadband. Or you can dream of the day when we can all download whatever we want to watch whenever we want to watch it. I'll buy that idea. In fact, I might even go so far as to pay for it.