Cable’s Bad Rep

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At the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention last week in New Orleans, much of the talk was about interactivity, interoperability and video-on-demand advances that will make cable even more valuable to consumers than it is now. Very positive stuff.

The unfortunate truth is that about a decade ago, the NCTA was just trying to get its simple service into homes, and began a major push to improve. Forget the triple-play, which didn’t exist then. Cable couldn’t connect with consumers on what was (pun intended) a basic level. And that perception hasn’t gone away.

Last week, while the convention was going on, the University of Michigan released a new survey that concluded satellite (DBS) consumers were more satisfied with service from DirecTV and DISH Network than they were with any of the major cable operators (though DISH was down from the previous year).

But the lowest-ranked were cable’s biggest. Comcast got a grade of 54. According to the index, though, cable’s performance overall did increase, and leading that were cable’s smallest operators. Cable’s score was up 3% from 62 in 2007, driven by smaller operators like Cablevision Systems, which serves only Long Island in New York and part of New York City, and so-called overbuilder RCN. The survey is based on an index of 100.

Of the four largest cable operators surveyed, Cox had the highest score at 63, unchanged from the year before. Next came Time Warner Cable at 59, up 1.7% from 58 the year before. Comcast was down 3.6% to 54 to tie with Charter, which was down 1.8%.

Before we begin the pro forma cable bashing, let’s remember this: The cable industry, as last week’s NCTA show proved, is attempting to provide sophisticated equipment and concepts to the masses. The triple-play cable mantra easily triples cable’s disappointment rate.

We aren’t wearing blinders. Virtually every staffer here has had cable problems, or had a friend or family member who has. But cable has been around the longest and provides the most. Unfortunately, when ratings are taken, even if consumers are asked to respond specifically to television delivery, it’s hard to separate the number of times that the average consumer has problems with cable or the Internet or phone service. Though the University of Michigan survey did measure those special services, it’s hard not to tar all providers with the same brush. Indeed, complaining about cable service is almost a reflex reaction.

To its credit, Comcast apologized and pledged to do better. “We can be a lot better in delivering a high-quality customer experience. I get that,” Rick Germano, Comcast senior VP of national customer operations, told The Associated Press. Comcast has hired 15,000 employees to improve service in the last year and a half. And it’s important to recognize that Comcast has recently acquired cable systems, and is still modernizing them.

But let’s not lose the chance to praise smaller operators; they came out as the best cable companies. That finding may also say something. Maybe the real value of “big” media” mainly accrues to stockholders, not customers.