Please Stand By

Last summer, Comcast launched a series of commercials entitled “That was then. This is Comcast,” in which ordinary-looking customers whisper about how weird it is that Comcast has such excellent customer service. They're funny commercials, reminiscent of the “This is SportsCenter” spots on ESPN. And they're disarming, in that Comcast spoofs its own nefarious history and that of its predecessor cable companies. In one Comcast ad, a real-life technician rescues a woman from a burning house.

Milissa Putman doesn't need to be rescued from her house. She would be happy if the cable repair guy would just show up. “The only time they've ever showed up at my house on time was when they came to sell cable to me the first time,” Putman says. When the cable technician finally returned in response to repeated complaints about poor picture quality, he left without fixing the problem. “It was still fuzzy,” she says.

Putman is one of thousands of consumers whose complaints are kept on file
at the state's Department of Telecommunications and Energy, complaints written as a last resort by people frustrated with their cable television service. These complaints differ mainly in the method of their transcription — bitter e-mails banged out in all capitals, handwritten letters full of exclamation points, and page after page of seething, single-spaced tirades.

Yet more than 87 percent of Massachusetts residents subscribe to cable, the second-highest penetration in the country. This despite the fact that the average price for standard cable here rose to $45.95 last month, almost $10 above the national average. Add the extra $5.95 for the most basic digital service, another $25 for a premium channel, or an extra $47 for all the premium channels, and many of us pay more for cable TV than we do for electricity. Nationwide, cable bills have increased 65 percent in the last 10 years, almost double the rate of inflation.

There have been mini-uprisings in cities and towns threatening to do their best Howard Stern impressions and switch to satellite. Framingham and Peabody wouldn't sign a renewal license last year. Belmont, Somerset, and Westford refused to extend their cable contracts until they negotiated better deals. It seems as if Brookline holds a cable TV breach-of-contract hearing every other week. A survey conducted by that town in December found that cable subscribers there spend an average of $66 a month, and 55 percent of them think the value they're getting for their money is poor or only fair. Thirty-one percent rank customer service as fair or poor.

Price, content, customer service — these are the subjects of complaints that Stephen Bressler, ombudsman for Brookline's Broadband Monitoring Committee, has been hearing since 1984, when Brookline first got cable and 50 channels cost only $2 a month. “Of course, the prices started going up, and people started to get upset,” Bressler says.

In fact, only 15 percent of customers nationwide think they get their money's worth from cable, the Boston-based Yankee Group consulting firm reports. But the same report unearthed another important figure: Satellite TV customers seem to be as happy as cable viewers are unhappy. Nearly 9 out of 10 satellite television subscribers are satisfied with their service. That's similar to what J.D. Power and Associates found. Satellite beats cable in customer satisfaction in content, customer service, cost, and every other category measured.

Which may finally mean the salvation of long-suffering Massachusetts cable-TV customers. Because for the first time, the cable companies have real competition. And they know it.

To understand why the subject of cable TV is so contentious, you have to go back a long time. You have to go back an eternity in today's world of technological one-upmanship. You have to go all the way back to 1994, back to the heady days of optimism, before the dot-com bubble burst, back when DirecTV was just a gleam in the eye of Rupert Murdoch. It was then that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt boasted that the government had “broken the back of hyperinflation in cable television prices.” He was referring to price regulations the FCC imposed on cable companies to reduce rates. Prices, on average, fell that year to $23.50 from $25.17 the previous year. With perhaps more gravity than was necessary, Hundt added that the intervention to help viewers get a better deal on such culturally important fare as 24-hour-a-day cartoons and game shows was “one of the greatest consumer actions in the history of consumer actions.”

Then, just two years later, came the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which ended any regulation of cable prices beyond the most basic tier of service. The very idea of the FCC imposing price regulations on cable companies today is laughable. “You've got a regulatory agency controlled by the industry it's regulating,” says attorney Peter Epstein, a negotiator for some of the most controversial licensing agreements between Massachusetts communities and cable companies. As a result, the cost of everything above basic service (which in Massachusetts gets you some local channels and the networks for about $10 a month) is whatever the market will bear.

Kevin Casey, senior vice president of Comcast New England, argues that while it's true that cable prices have increased dramatically in the last 10 years, the rate of increase is slowing. And Comcast, which acquired AT&T Broadband in 2003 to become the dominant cable supplier in the state, has added technological advances such as digital cable, OnDemand, wireless Internet, and high-definition TV. Before Comcast arrived in the market, AT&T hadn't added a new product or service in more than three years.

Still, state Senator Pamela Resor of Acton found “ongoing dissatisfaction” with rising rates among subscribers when she commissioned a 31-page report on the cable-television industry. Unfortunately, noted the report, this is an issue over which “local government has no control.”

Local government does, however, have a tiny amount of control over another major complaint: programming choice and, more specifically, the amount of local programming. Cable companies, including Comcast, have been trying to get out of the business of providing local programming, says Epstein. It's one of the biggest negotiating chips communities have when they're determining what fees the cable companies pay to use the town's streets and roads and light poles to run cable. And it's the basis for the fights in Framingham, Peabody, and Brookline.

“Comcast,” says Bressler, “has generated a lot of anger.”

Fran Berger, chair of Brookline's Broadband Monitoring Committee, can pinpoint the moment her community soured on Comcast. And it didn't have anything to do with prices, signal quality, or customer service. “What they did to BAT was the start of the deterioration of that relationship,” she says.

She's referring to Brookline Access Television and what its executive director, Tom Bellotti, calls “a serious change in attitude” toward local programming when Comcast bought AT&T Broadband two years ago. BAT was sharing a studio with AT&T to produce local programming until the spring of 2003, when Comcast replaced its studio with a permanent set for its own live shows. Bellotti says local producers were not allowed to use the studio except on a limited basis and were sent to a smaller room they call the “speakeasy.” After Brookline filed a lawsuit, Comcast agreed to build a new studio for BAT.

“Comcast has changed the landscape by ceasing to be a community participant,” says Epstein. “Cable TV in its infancy was community-based. That's really gone.”

Casey responds that Comcast has conducted thousands of customer surveys and found that there's a disconnect between what typical viewers want and what boards of selectmen want. Local programming, he says, “is not at the forefront of the average cable consumer.”

But David Levy says Comcast has failed to understand how important local programming is to New Englanders. Levy, the Westford Cable Advisory Committee chairman, was the first to deny Comcast's license transfer from AT&T Broadband. He and the board also denied a renewal in April, primarily on the basis of disagreements over local programming.

“School boards are televised. Local sports programming. Those kinds of things are well thought of by the community,” Levy says. “Not having these would cause a big outcry.”

Westford has since negotiated a longer period of time to find a home for its local programming studio and finally signed a renewal agreement with Comcast in December. Residents in Arlington have yet to resolve their differences with Comcast, and local programming will play a major role when the renewal comes up in that town next year.

“For them, local access is a loss of revenue,” Bellotti says. Epstein agrees. “They have said, 'We're not going to do it.' Even though they're supposed to.”

Casey argues that the towns themselves are best equipped to run their own programming. There are two ways to operate local programming — either the cable company runs it or the community can run it with money from the cable company. “We're talking about grass-roots work here,” he says. “Who better to do it than them?”

Not only is the local programming missing, but the community spirit has gone with it, Berger says. “In this day and age of media conglomeration, for people to see selectmen's meetings and school board meetings, it's so much a thread of what cable was about.”

This is cable's “ask for forgiveness later, rather than ask for permission beforehand” policy, Berger says. She says that, if asked, Brookline would have worked with Comcast. “I think the town has a problem with their arrogance,” she says.

So why is cable fighting back with boasts about its customer service? In a way, it has no other choice. Prices are not going down, not in an unregulated market. Programming choice is largely determined by the programmers themselves. Disney, for example, owns ESPN, A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel, among others. Viacom owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and CMT. That's part of the reason people who get TV Land to watch classic '60s sitcoms also get VH1 and its Celebrity Weirdness Explained . They're both owned by Viacom. So while 20 networks account for nearly three-quarters of all viewership, consumers are forced to pay for dozens more channels they may never watch.

Customer service is one thing cable suppliers can change. And it does need to change, says Michael Goodman, an analyst with the Yankee Group. Even Comcast concedes that when customers called AT&T's customer service number, they were just as likely to get a busy signal as a person who could help them. “They did this to themselves with bad customer service,” Goodman says. “Strictly in terms of technology, cable is the better product, but the satellite systems have done a tremendous job of convincing the consumer they're a better value. They helped paint the picture of a negative, big company, and cable companies did nothing to dissuade them from it.”

As a result, Rupert Murdoch's DirecTV satellite company added nearly 1.4 million customers last year, of whom 600,000 switched from cable. Comcast lost 96,000 cable customers in the second quarter of last year alone, even while it was posting a $262 million profit.

The “This Is Comcast” spots, then, represent a change in direction. “You have to take your mea culpa,” Goodman says.

“It was a fundamental change in approach,” Casey says. “We poked a little fun at our past and said we're trying to change the paradigm of the cable industry.” But he insists this change goes past just commercials and marketing and image. He says Comcast is a customer-focused company in a way its Massachusetts predecessors — AT&T and Cablevision — never were.

From inside the 110,000-square-foot Chelmsford call center, one of four that Comcast runs in Massachusetts, the customer service focus does not appear to be a bluff. The company has added more than 500 new customer service representatives and technicians in New England, expanding repair visits to weekends and bringing its number of employees in Massachusetts alone to 3,100. Comcast projects that those employees will interact with customers on some level more than 40 million times this year. This new commitment is why it's been able to answer 90 percent of its calls within 30 seconds, the company says. AT&T never even measured how efficiently it answered calls.

Casey is betting that such investments will offset what he calls “painful changes” that come with corporate mergers, such as decreasing levels of participation in local programming, the introduction of new and sometimes confusing technologies, and, of course, the inexorable increases in prices. AT&T customer satisfaction was barely 65 percent; Comcast says its surveys show a 90 percent customer satisfaction rate.

“You can get a negative reputation really quickly,” Goodman says. “But to change that negative to a positive is a really difficult thing to do.”

Do we really love to hate cable? The stack of complaints, the surveys — all suggest that many of us are unhappy. Maybe it's because we feel like we don't have any choice. Prices and content are out of our control. Milissa Putman says she went to a hearing to complain and was told she could talk about anything except price and content. “Well, what else is there?” she asks.

One hope is that more competition — not only with satellite, but among cable operators — will drive down prices and expand choice. A 1990s study by the Foundation for Economic Education found that basic cable cost an average of 18 percent less in communities with competition than in those without it.

There are nine cable operators other than Comcast doing business in Massachusetts — Adelphia, RCN, Time Warner, the Braintree Electric Light Department, Charter, Cox, the Norwood Light Department, Russell, and Shrewsbury Community Television — and they all get their turn in the consumer woodshed. But RCN and Adelphia, two of Comcast's closest competitors, have only 223,000 subscribers between them. And both have been in bankruptcy court (RCN emerged from bankruptcy in December). Comcast has 1.5 million of the 2.2 million subscribers in Massachusetts.

So when people complain about the lack of competition, they're right and wrong. Only 22 of the state's 300-odd towns and cities have licenses with more than one cable operator, even though the licenses are, by law, nonexclusive. And Shrewsbury Community Television, for example, isn't likely to start offering service outside its current 12,000-subscriber base any time soon.

Braintree Electric Light, however, has proven that local outlets can compete and drive down prices under the right circumstances. Started during the “lame-duck” period when AT&T was being bought by Comcast, the utility began delivering Internet access to a few customers and added other services gradually. It has eight customer service representatives, some 590 less than Comcast has in its Chelmsford office alone, but marketing and program director JoAnn Bregnard says this is an advantage, since subscribers know their representative by name. “Customer service is absolutely more of a driving force for our customers,” she says. Braintree Electric has 4,863 subscribers in Braintree. Comcast has 6,456.

Epstein, too, believes that competition still exists, although not necessarily between cable companies. He sees competition rising between different systems, between satellite providers like DirecTV, cable systems such as Comcast, and wireless providers including Verizon. “On the cable end, if you don't like it, you can go to satellite,” he says.

Of course, there is one other option if you still hate cable, Epstein says: “You can put your antenna back up.”