My Day as a Cable Television Customer

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Or “How to ignore customers and then wonder why they left.”

Full disclosure: I worked for Comcast several years ago, and the following story sounds too familiar. I used to roll my eyes at the ceiling when I heard from customers in similar predicaments. I guess it was my turn a couple of weeks ago.

I came home one day a few weeks ago to find all but a few broadcast and shopping channels gone. Blank screens. Nada.

So, I called Comcast, and after a 15-minute wait on hold, they hung up on me (which is not the first time this has occurred). So, I called back and (again after a long hold) was finally able to speak with someone. He confirmed that I lost the channels due to a “realignment” and that I needed a new cable box to see them again.

There was no notification, no 30-second local ads on CNN, ESPN or Discovery Channel that they can use for free, nothing in the bill that I get for my high speed Internet, no separate post card like I sent Insight Communications and Verizon Wireless customers in another life when changes in technology were imminent. No, Comcast management apparently said to each other, “let’s surprise them!” It’s like the DirecTV ads with Ed Begley Jr. are real! It reminds me of the time a cable company moved their office in southern Indiana 12 years ago and didn’t bother to tell their subscribers. Is it forgetfulness, ignorance or apathy?

I get “expanded basic,” or whatever they call that now, included in the townhouse fees. Analog channels were dropped in the fall, but my Sony’s built-in digital “QAM” tuner could pick up all the digital channels crystal clear in 480i (which means “better quality than your old RCA tube TV”). When the company was on the property distributing boxes in August, every single person at the company, at my front door and on the phone, told me I wouldn’t need one since I had a digital tuner. OK, “cool!,” I thought.

I remembered Brian Roberts, Comcast Chairman and CEO, appearing on one of the cable news channels when the broadcast channels were switching to digital earlier in 2009, forcing anyone with an older TV and using an antenna to get a decoder box. Oh no, Mr. Roberts said, you don’t need one of those boxes with cable. Mr. and Mrs. Broadcast TV Viewer, come to Comcast. We will take care of you!

So, that night, the functionality of my Sony XBR’s built-in QAM tuner goes POOF! (or so I thought). And the cheap Motorola-branded “Digital Transport Adapter” set-top box they provide doesn’t work with any universal remote I have (and I have several). Folks on have been discussing this issue for months. Just a coax cable in, coax cable out. No HDMI. Not even a video/audio out. (Um, excuse me, Mr. Roberts? 1980 called. It wants its converter box back…)  Apparently, this thing is just enough to placate FCC regulations, and was obviously not tested to work with popular customer equipment like my Sony TV’s universal remote.

I was on the telephone with Comcast about these channels twice the next day, and neither representative could tell me why, when and how about anything, even after putting me on hold for interminable lengths of time. I thought I had finally found the answer about why these changes were made after Googling a March 2009 newspaper story from the Seattle Times, a city where customers can get two of the “DTAs” and one “advanced” set top box for free, as that story mentioned Comcast had plans to “encrypt” (or electronically scramble) all but a few channels. Hmmph… here in Atlanta, we get only two of the cheap DTAs. I feel slighted.

Why encrypt? It doesn’t save any bandwidth, as that occurred when they dropped analog channels. Beyond their public relations line from the Seattle Times of the “networks requesting it,” a story which I take with huge grain of salt, here are my thoughts:

  • to stop cable theft, but they end up penalizing their paying customers for failing to police their own cable plant
  • to effectively bar customers from using third party DVRs like TiVo and those in media center computers, and force them to use Comcast’s clunky DVR and even clunkier interactive program guide (compared to TiVo’s excellent browser), effectively creating a monopoly, especially for those of us where satellite reception is not feasible.

If they truly were concerned about customer service, the box would be switchable to:

  • allow downconversion to analog for older TVs, and
  • provide simple pass-through decryption of the FCC-mandated local HD channels and reception of 480i cable channels for use on HDTVs so customers could still use their equipment’s internal tuners.

They would also provide many more options for cable boxes with CableCARDs, which is a great idea that was never marketed the way it should have been, and was engineered poorly, since multiple truck rolls were often necessary to get it working and keep it working.

However, this Motorola box doesn’t pass the broadcast HD signals, so I had to jury rig the box for regular cable via routing through a VCR so I could switch back and forth between cable channels and local HD broadcasts that flow through the cable pipe.

I was also back to using 2 remotes, as the poor excuse for a “universal” remote that comes in the box is that in name only, since I can only get it to turn off my 2006-model HD TV that uses standard Sony IR codes… not turn it on or change the volume. The quality of the digital channels lowered dramatically by going through the “DTA,” as they were now analog and no longer 480i, and frankly looked terrible on the 40″ LCD.

Of course, they would rent me a HD box, right? Sure, if they had them in stock. But they didn’t. They’d gladly rent me a HD-DVR, though, at a much higher rate. Um, no. I wasn’t paying a dime for better quality TV signals and more convenience the day before.

When I marketed cable, one of the last major pluses of Cable TV we could tout was the fact “we” didn’t force our customers to put a box on every TV like the satellite guys did. Well, that selling point is now moot. Several years ago, I had TV from Dish Network and High Speed Internet from the cable company, and I see that in my future again. And I paid less than the full cable package.

Actions like this simply push some of their best customers away to competitors. Sigh.

They must have meetings to discuss how they will prompt more customers to get satellite dishes, just like a couple of my neighbors were doing the day after they turned on their TVs to find just a handful of channels left on their new whiz-bang LCDs and plasmas.

Cable, overall, is getting beaten handily by the satellite and phone companies (yes, the phone companies!) on JD Powers TV satisfaction ratings. I do applaud the cable operators that seem to care, like Cox, and are rated accordingly. But most of the country is served by cable operators that are, sadly, rated below average.

Wait! My story is not over. I got my channels back… stay tuned.

The cable went completely out at the townhouse complex the next day. Was fixed about 6 hours later. Did the same thing the next day after 24 hours of heavy rain just before I left for the Comcast office to pick up my cable boxes. After some poking around, I found it was probably a bad amplifier outside (analog channels 2-13 were snowy, the shopping channels higher up, and still on analog, were crystal clear). When I put a 2-way splitter in line, both the digital cable and Internet were kaput.

When I called to report the outage, and even though I identified myself as someone who knows more than the average bear and even likely correctly diagnosed their problem, they would not call it an “outage” and would not roll a truck. So, no service call was available until Monday “between 2 and 5.” I finally got things duct-taped together by moving the cable modem into another room and hooking it up there. But I still couldn’t split the cable in the living room to watch HD broadcast TV. Until two days later, that is, after the sun came out and dried up the water inside the amplifier. I hope it doesn’t rain again for more than a few minutes at a time!

And there’s more…

When I was picking up the boxes at their office in north Atlanta:

  • the line moved slower than the one at the post office. Really.
  • the automatic payment machine wasn’t working. No surprise there.
  • 2 of the 5 employees were chewing gum as they slowly assisted customers.
  • the sloppily-dressed security guard was talking to one customer service rep, saying loudly — for the 30 people in line to hear — how he “was really pi__ed” about something as she giggled at him.

Amazing. This kind of stuff would not have been tolerated at Calgary Cable tv/fm in the old days. Or Rifkin. Or Insight. Certainly not Verizon.

And, yes, I got my channels back completely by mistake… I was pressing buttons on the Sony’s remote, and hit the “reprogram” button when I was going for the “find other digital channels” button. Guess what? It found all the channels. Comcast had moved them. All of them, except for a few. The XBR saved the day, and I’m back to watching my favorite shows in decent quality.

Obviously, nobody at Comcast technical operations told their customer service people they had done this. No, it’s simply easier to inconvenience customers and tell them they need a cable box that diminishes picture quality.  I’m dreading the day that I turn on the TV and find them encrypted. When will this happen? Beats me. But it likely will. Apparently, Comcast doesn’t tell anyone that deep, dark secret, not even their customer service people.  If someone simply would have told me that they’d moved the QAM channels that day, we would have avoided all this, and you would not be reading this column now; the folks on the phone didn’t say this, and neither did the representative in person at the cable office.

This company just bought NBC??? I’m envisioning the new 2010 fall schedule promos: “Jay Leno! Tonight! Sometime between 8 and midnight… Maybe!”

Update January 26 2010. The Poor Service Saga continues:  The cable went off again over the weekend, but this time I didn’t report it; my neighbors did.  The following photos are Comcast’s handy work in fixing the problem; it’s been this way since early Sunday morning with no indication of when the problem that caused the outage will be fixed permanently; a technician at my home today couldn’t tell me.  Obviously, this is a safety hazard.  Not shown is a long line stretching across a commonly-used driveway for 8 townhomes that can easily be cut or trip someone.  These lines should have been secured via duct tape (or in some other fashion) to the concrete and these huge loops of cable should not be there.  If the service supervisors I know saw this, there would be a closed door session with the guilty party!

Comcast temporary lines and safety hazard stretching across the front doors of 4 townhomes, and the driveway to 8.

Update April 15 2010. I woke up to find all my digital channels encrypted without any kind of warning from Comcast.  Again. Forcing me to hook up the cheap cable box.  I’m now back to watching blurry channels.  Sigh.

Takeaways to consider…

  1. Answer your phone
  2. Listen to your customers
  3. Train your staff to be always courteous, helpful and knowledgeable
  4. Communicate!
  5. Deliver on your customer service promises
  6. All of your investment in excellent marketing can be wasted if you provide poor service.

Jonathan Blaine

I've always called myself a "Marketing Guy." If I had a brand and logo, perhaps that would be my slogan. Measuring ROI is huge. Just because you're now using "new media" does not mean marketing fundamentals should be discarded. Customers' desires do not change. I'm a "right-brained creative analytical" guy (if you can fathom such a thing) who looks at a project several different ways. My first instinct is usually the correct one. I'm a "doer," and often a "diplomatic fixer;" someone who gets things done and still gets a thrill out of customers actually buying something because of something I mailed to them, or an ad I placed. Most of my success has come from strategy, writing, how ideas are presented to the potential customer and the actual thoughts that somehow originate within the ether between my ears. As a fan of DM guru Denny Hatch, I believe that the brand should never outweigh the message, and that art should never win over copy. The mix has to be “just right.” And continually tested. I have solid ryttan, err, written and verbal communication skills, and a reputation for consistently producing cost-effective quality work.

3 Replies to “My Day as a Cable Television Customer

  1. Our family really understands the issues with Comcast after a 14 hour trek through bad Comcast service and three visits by “technicians”! We still don’t have sound on our HD channels and all they have suggested is a $20 credit on our current bill……no suggestions on how to fix the problem………….

  2. I’ve had countless issues with comcast, from boxes not working, echoing in the phone lines, to killing my alarm system and even double billing me on internet service. But I must say, the subject line of ‘how to ignore customers and wonder why they left’ has got me laughing out loud! I’ve given up complaining so now I am waiting for ATT to provide cable service in my area. MAYBE they’ll be better.

  3. I have a similar background…corporate cable network guy,now living in a townhouse where I can’t get the great DirecTV I used to love. It’s important for all to note that my cable company, Cablevision, has jumped me through similar hoops. It’s not just Comcast; it not just Cablevision…it’s the way the industry as a whole does things. I’ve been trying to figure out why for 30’s years…and so far have failed miserably. “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

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