Changing Channels (Valley News)

Comcastic Behavior

For a company that prides itself as "the nation's leading provider of entertainment, information and communications products and services," Comcast isn't very good at communicating with customers. When it reduced the number of analog channels earlier this summer, effectively forcing consumers to purchase a more expensive digital service if they wanted to keep their subscriber package, lots of viewers in Vermont and New Hampshire were caught by surprise. Instructions on the TV screen said to call customer service, which is really a disservice in much of corporate America. Many couldn't get through on the phone; those who did manage to reach a human learned they'd have to pay the same for less (to hold on to their analog service) or pay more for the same (if they switched to digital).

All in all, not a pricing plan any company would want to advertise too loudly. No wonder a lot of analog customers missed the fine print explaining the migration to digital.

So many Vermonters in particular complained about the changes to their Comcast cable service that Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent with a good instinct for monopolistic bad behavior, intervened. Or he tried to: In a deregulated cable market, the powers of a U.S. senator are limited. But Sanders did excoriate Comcast: "When people pay the same amount of money to receive less service, that is a rate hike, plain and simple," he told Executive Vice President David L. Cohen. He also asked Comcast to make a commitment to hold periodic public meetings to help customers better understand the company's pricing and programming decisions -- decisions that appear predatory (pricing) and inscrutable (programming). Last week, Sanders held a town meeting in Rutland to allow people to vent about Comcast's service. The place was packed.

For its part, Comcast says it's trying to satisfy the majority of its Twin State customers, who already have digital boxes and expect more on-demand programming. Since the analog format takes up more room on the fiber optic network, limiting choice, the company decided to eliminate some analog channels. Comcast has waived for one year the fees to rent the digital box; and, under pressure from Sanders, it agreed to eliminate the installation fee for the box.

But these concessions don't excuse the manner in which the company executed the switch. Nor does the promise of better digital service explain why analog subscribers lost popular channels, including MSNBC, a liberal antidote to Fox News, and EWTN, a Catholic religious channel Sanders described as a spiritual lifeline for many of his constituents. Comcast claims customer feedback and contractual obligations with programmers informed decisions about which channels to eliminate; MSNBC was described as one of the "lesser-viewed" channels. We'd like to see the market research on that.

At any rate, Comcast's hegemony in the cable universe is not optimal for consumers. Cable deregulation in 1996 was supposed to lead to more competition and lower prices. Instead, as Sanders points out, cable prices have risen 77 percent since then, double the rate of inflation. And in predominately rural places like Vermont, competition doesn't really exist except for satellite services. Comcast rakes in the profits -- $2.58 billion in 2007 -- while skimping on customer service. Last year, the Vermont Department of Public Service received 952 complaints about Comcast in a six-month period.

Perhaps it's time more people complained not just about Comcast but also about the effects of cable deregulation. Send your complaints c/o the U.S. Congress to Washington, D.C. With any luck, your customer service representative might actually get the message.