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In Cable, a Common Bond

By John Kelly
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C08

Why does everyone hate their cable company?

It's something I've always wondered. My hatred for my cable company is sort of diffuse, a low-grade ache that never really goes away and then flares up whenever I'm reminded the cable company exists, such as after My Lovely Wife's recent screaming match in the street with a Comcast repairman.

So I called around to try to get an answer.

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I called Brian Dietz at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. "Why does everyone hate their cable company?" I asked him.

"I don't know that that's true," he said. "I think there's a lot of old perceptions that some people still seem to cling to. But if you look at the customers that subscribe to many of the new services that cable companies are offering, the majority are satisfied. Cable companies have tried very hard to improve their customer service procedures because of the highly competitive environment that we exist in."

So there was one answer: Everybody doesn't hate their cable company. Maybe they used to, but now cable offers more then just TV shows -- high- speed Internet, voice-over Internet -- and thus people are more satisfied.

Alex Horwitz at Cox Communications had a similar answer when I asked him why everyone hates their cable company.

He said cable hatred is sort of an old wives' tale, like thinking you can't go swimming right after you've eaten. "It's a thing of the past that's changed a lot since cable companies became more than just cable companies."

I was detecting a theme.

I asked Comcast's David H. Nevins why everyone hates their cable company. He said: "I think by no means does everyone hate their cable company. I think that to the extent that there has been some animosity over the years, I think it's due to a number of factors."

One factor, David said, is that many people remember a time when TV was "free," when you plucked signals from the air with an antenna. "Now on a monthly basis people are writing checks for $30, $40, $50 -- and much more than that in some cases," he said. They're getting more for their money, but that still represents "a sort of psychological hurdle that people need to overcome."

Gary Houston of Starpower said people have strong feelings about cable TV because they spend so much time with it. "It's the one thing that people use the most every day," he said. "Even when you're on your telephone -- even your cell phone -- you're on it three hours a day, tops. The electric company you don't see."

But people average eight hours a day with television, Gary said. "It's their lifeline, their connection. It gets very personal with people."

It's so personal that when there's a glitch of some sort, people get emotional.

Mark Cooper at the Consumer Federation didn't dispute that everybody hates their cable company. He said it was because of the way the bills keep going up and up and because getting the channels you want to watch requires taking channels you don't want to watch.

And, said Mark, cable companies "are not driven by either regulation or competition to treat people very well."

Gene Kimmelman at Consumers Union said: "We have found over and over again that people think the prices are much higher than they ought to be. They keep going up, three times faster than inflation. And the cable companies tell you you should be happy with those rate increases because you're getting new channels. We find over and over again . . . that people don't want those channels."

According to J.D. Power and Associates, residential cable television got the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any similar industry in 2003, lower than the electric company, the gas company and satellite TV providers, lower even than the phone company.

The industry says that some of this is because of the inevitable disruption caused when cable companies have to tear up lawns and string up fiber-optic wires in their quest to do more than just bring viewers "The Sopranos" and "Trading Spaces."

David Nevins from Comcast said, "We recognize that in building a world-class, state-of-the-art cable enterprise that there have been customer-service challenges, which let's say have added to the notion that you suggest as your premise."

(That premise, you'll recall, is that everyone hates their cable company.)

"But frankly," David continued, "our day-to-day experience is that for the most part our customers are as loyal and as satisfied as most customers could be of any product or service offered by industry today."

Is it possible that I'm wrong and that everybody doesn't hate their cable company?

Fore! Gone Conclusion

I like to skim the police blotters. One from Loudoun County caught my eye. This week on Grottoes Drive in Ashburn, "Unknown subject(s) entered an open garage of a residence and removed golf clubs."

Having played 27 of the ugliest holes of golf while on vacation, all I can say about that thief is that taking up the game ought to be punishment enough for whatever crimes he committed.

Go on, live a little. Join me today at 1 p.m. for my weekly online chat. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. And if you have a comment or observation, drop me a line at kellyj@washpost.com or 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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