McAdams On: Comcast’s Growing Pains

CUSTOMERLAND—There was a time when the Comcast-Time Warner Cable marriage would have stood out as much for the contrary nature of the lovebirds as the sheer size of the deal. Comcast was deliberate in its acquisitions, methodical with the integrations, and mindful of public perception both on the premises and Capitol Hill, where you never heard about it taking out full-page ads attacking retransmission consent law.

Didn’t happen. Comcast was too cool, and frequently had too much in the regulatory approval pipeline to stir up pesky lobbying flaps. It also had the mightiest negotiating leverage of any pay TV operator, so it didn’t need to lean on Congress for much of anything. That, and the CEO plays golf with the president. Of the United States.

Then you had TWC at No. 2. The second largest U.S. cable operator after Comcast. TWC has been fighting retransmission consent without gloves for 15 years, taking it public big time in the late ‘90s by pulling ABC during its run of a blockbuster primetime game show. Each year since, a member of Congress has waived a piece of paper and issued mildly stern statements about citizens being deprived of TV, as if TV is an inalienable right that people should get over-the-air for free.

See how I did that?

Both companies were not like the other on the customer side, as well, or so it seemed. People generally have no love for their particular pay TV provider. It’s more of reactionary scale of dislike, with Comcast landing in the shrug zone and TWC evoking the type of vitriol usually saved for opposing sports teams.

A lot of it had to do with infrastructure. TWC picked up the bulk of Adelphia subscribers eight years ago after the company went bankrupt because John and Tim Rigas forgot to not pilfer profits that probably should have gone into network maintenance. Cable TV service in areas of Los Angeles, where TWC picked up 1 million former Adelphia subscribers, is still notoriously unstable. I have a relative in the Valley who has to call them up about once a week to reset her set-top, because they apparently can’t be bothered to bring her one that works. Or they don’t have one that works.

I haven’t seen enough examples of TWC’s premium digital package to see what they’re turning HD into; but I’d bet it’s not pretty for networks unable to negotiate bit rate. TWC is not likely alone in its bandwidth conservation methodology. I’ve seen moon-landing resolutions of HD source material on pay TV systems across the country. This squeeze play behooved the big operators in two ways. As they packed more channels into their pipes, they made more money on subscription packages over the same creaky infrastructures. At the same time, they could throw the blame for price hikes at broadcasters and take the focus off a la carte, even while carrying 30 cable-only channels that no one watched. They hate that a la carte thing with which the Internet is now eating their lunch.

But back to reactionary scale of dislike. Comcast was downgraded from a “meh” to “pox” last month when AOL Vice President of Product Ryan Block posted a recording of a call he made of a Comcast rep who did everything but conjure self-immolation and a plague of locusts to upsell rather than cancel Block’s service. The audio file went DEFCON ebola and spawned a series on The Verge of current and former Comcast employees confirming the obvious: “Customer service has been replaced by an obsession with sales, technicians are understaffed, tech support is poorly trained, and the telecommunications behemoth is hobbled by internal fragmentation.”

There is but one and only one reason both Comcast and TWC and any other company gets by with customer abuse: There is no real competition among broadband providers. There was exactly one choice where I am in TWC’s footprint, and where Verizon has lost interest in wires. The tech who came to connect me was kept on hold for about 30 minutes by his own support team while he was trying to accomplish a five-minute job. I offered him tea. If the company treated its own like that, how would it treat me, the customer?

Oh. That’s right. There are no more “customers,” but rather “revenue-generating units,” a collective that Comcast apparently disdains so thoroughly it has dropped all pretense of customer service. Complaints about shoddy service and buggy boxes do nothing for average revenue per unit. Rather than finding out why subscribers are canceling, Comcast has elected a strategy of haranguing them into buying even more expensive lousy service.

If my 94-year-old auntie had been treated like Block was, I would have called the attorney general’s office and sent a picture of her and her doggie to Nancy Pelosi. The folks at the NAB would be all ----->

Comcast and TWC might very well be hitting the point of entropy that all empire-building endeavors encounter, when thoughtful, sustainable integration is abandoned entirely in the quest for more. Hopefully, the bad press has inspired genuine reflection about how customers are treated, versus how much they can be soaked for on the fly.

Because Google fiber.