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Where to channel your rage

February 17, 2002 1:36 am

LIKE MOST BUSINESSES that
offer a service, cable-televi-
sion companies probably want their customers to feel they're getting good service.

To a point. That point being when providing good service at a reasonable cost goes from being lucrative to just profitable.

Cable TV is sort of like God: People worship it but they don't always understand it. Like God, cable companies are unregulated, and if people have a complaint, they have to take it on faith that their cable provider is really listening.

Having grown up in a large city, where all you needed to watch TV was a TV, I only grudgingly decided 17 years ago to take the leap into cable. I got all I wanted--broadcast channels, some cable channels, and even FM radio--for about $15 a month.

Today I pay three times that to Adelphia for service that includes many cable channels I never watch, no premium channels, and no FM--which Adelphia (nee Prestige) inexplicably fails to offer. There's no excuse for that.

My issue with the cable-television industry, aside from excess channels, exorbitant cost, and lack of FM service, is its autonomy. No matter what your cable company would like you to believe, there's no real dialogue between you and it. You pay your bill and you get what you get. Must I really pay for home-shopping channels? Switching to a dish would give me hundreds more channels I don't want.

There is little cable regulation. There is usually no competition. There are no standards. Our cable rates went up twice last year after Adelphia took over from Prestige. The reasons given were an alleged improvement in service, an alleged increase in the cost of cable-network programming, and the alleged cost of operating in a high-growth area.

It doesn't matter whether you believe what they say or not. The fact is that cable companies don't even need a reason to increase rates.

I've always believed that cable companies should be held accountable for their actions just as other utilities are--and be just as dependable as flipping on a light switch or turning on a water faucet. There was a time when the cable would go out whenever there was a stiff breeze. A thunderstorm? Forget it. Power still works. Phone still works. Cable dead as a doornail.

That situation has improved somewhat, but reception generally remains nothing to brag about, and sometimes it's downright awful.

Other utilities need to apply
to the State Corporation Commission for rate increases and supply detailed support documentation. Though certain increases are allowed pending an SCC ruling, customers are given refunds when the SCC grants a lesser increase or denies it altogether.

When was the last time your cable company reduced rates or gave you a refund?

There is no such SCC watchdog for the cable companies. But there should be. The Spotsylvania Cable TV and Telecommunications Commission wants residents' detailed complaints about cable service. But while it can pass those complaints along, it doesn't have any real clout to get Adelphia to respond.

Consider also that an average
of seven people per day come to Spotsylvania County to live. Say that's two families. It's probably not seven individuals, but it could be. Many of them, if not most, will sign up for cable. Any way you look at it, that's a lot of new customers. Many of them will get that service with a flick of a switch. New homes will need to be wired. Once.

If the houses in an area are too far apart to fit a cable company's definition of "feasible," it won't provide service. Wouldn't the phone company or power company love that option?

The bottom line is that Adelphia keeps raising rates even though its expanding customer base keeps increasing its revenues. How expensive can it be to lay cable? And if the cost of programming is really rising as much as they'd have you believe, then they need a better negotiator.

And advertising. Cable promos are always telling us what a great deal it is to advertise on cable. Could it be that viewers are subsidizing it?

If they are continuously upgrading their technology--a boilerplate excuse at every rate increase--then they should offer me a check-off menu to order channels à la carte.

Perhaps companies such as Adelphia are spreading themselves too thin with other new technologies to offer good service in any one area.

Judging from the letters to the editor in this newspaper, there is displeasure with the Internet service and high-speed cable-modem service that Adelphia provides, not to mention regular old cable TV. They also offer long-distance phone service. Uh, no thanks.

Tacked onto my cable bill this month was a copy of Adelphia's "Customer Care Mission" statement. It was decorated with Valentine hearts and told me that I'm No. 1.

Right.

Cut my rates 30 percent, though, and we can even play footsy.





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