Let's talk about the Comcast experience

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Comcast

Comcast (April 9, 2013)

Consumer loyalty, in the digital media era, seems to be as valued as an AOL start-up disk. Customers of most cellphone companies finish their contracts and win the right to keep paying the same high prices that supposedly included the cost of their once-new phones.

And in the pay-TV world, I was recently reminded, customers with commitment issues are courted like aged millionaires with unwritten wills. But the ones who stick with a company, by and large, get rewarded with escalating monthly bills and equipment that might charitably be referred to as “vintage.”

I heard a whole lot about this from readers after I detailed a couple of Sundays ago my experience in switching over to Comcast/Xfinity for television (and phone and Internet) service after many years with the satellite-based TV providers.

One thing I learned is that writing teachers facing a class of reluctant scribes should consider giving an assignment about peoples' TV-service dissatisfactions. The floodgates open. I haven't received such passionate response since I ticked off the world's community of paperweight collectors.

One correspondent wrote of an “excruciating” experience with Comcast and then laid it out in persuasive detail. Another described “the fiasco that has been our experience with Comcast,” while another took pity on the companies for the “promotions arms race” they have locked themselves into. Someone with less equanimity wrote of the company's “avaricious, prehensile, dissembling heart.” Well.

A sampling, edited and condensed:

Q: I read with amazement how little Comcast is charging you. My husband and I are scratching our heads wondering what we did wrong. We have been with Comcast for many years (probably 10) but think it may be time to switch as this is getting way too expensive. Please tell me that you got an introductory low offer. If so, hold on to your wallet when that expires! — Amy Raczka, Glen Ellyn

A: I was a new customer shopping for service at a time Comcast was running a very good promotion. I pay $109 a month plus a couple of extras (modem, extra cable receiver) for a high-end cable package, phone and Internet. It's a two-year contract, and after the first year it goes up to $129 — still a bargain. And when that expires and the rates want to jump, I'll start shopping again.

A key point: To make myself more portable, I long ago stopped using an e-mail address from whomever was providing my Internet service: “@comcast.net,” “@sbcglobal.net” and the like. Several people told me they feel tethered to Comcast because they don't want to switch e-mail addresses. But biting the bullet now to change to an independent e-mail service, such as Gmail, Yahoo mail or Microsoft's new Outlook.com, will give you more power when the time comes to renegotiate service.

Raczka later wrote back to tell me she called Comcast to complain about her comparatively high rates — $165 with no HD or DVR — and the company “suddenly found a ‘deal,'” giving her an extra $35 a month off. “I told this whole story to a friend and she, too, had already called Comcast to complain after reading your article,” she said. “They magically found her a $20 deduction, too. You are probably on Comcast's naughty list.”

Q: Your sidebar re: Comcast leaves me a bit perplexed. At first glance it almost seems to be a Tribune endorsement for that company. — Robert Rue, Bolingbrook

A: I think I laid out a mixed viewpoint, entirely my own, not the Tribune's. The On Demand programming is truly great — although Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” disappeared awfully quicky — and the price I was able to get is right. But the on-screen programming guide is a relic, and the channel lineup seems to have been arranged by dart toss.

Meanwhile, since that article ran, I've had more vexing issues with my DVR, which is current top-of-the-line in Chicago but can only record two shows at once and seems to make up its own mind about which one to stop recording if we change plans after a recording has been set. We missed the season premiere of “Mad Men” that way (catching up with a rebroadcast later the same night).

And what about the new “X1” platform that will supposedly solve some of this, the one the company said was coming to Chicago within a couple of weeks when I spoke to representatives in mid-March? I still haven't seen it at my house, nor does it even appear in online enticements to new customers. Comcast should get going on that or risk earning a reputation as the kind of company that, you know, doesn't show up on time.

Q: Exceptional reporting! But I could not find the site to add the “skip” button for remote. Please advise. — Jack Breisacher, Chicago

A: The best tweak I've made to my system is to add back in the 30-second skip button that was once standard on DVR remotes. With it, watching a recorded football game, you can skip huddles entirely and jump through ad blocs in four quick button presses.

I followed the instructions here: http://howto.cnet.com/8301-11310_39-57404724-285/how-to-program-a-30-second-skip-button-for-comcast-dvrs/ Or, instead of typing all of that into your browser, go to Google and search “cnet comcast 30 second skip.” It should be the first non-ad result.

Q: I want to pass along a tip you may or may not know about that makes it easier to watch Comcast On Demand programs. The “page up” and “page down” buttons on the remote advance the program 5 minutes either forward or back at a time. This makes it much easier to navigate than using the fast-forward or reverse arrows, and it helps with those programs that don't allow use of the fast-forward arrow. It's not perfect, of course, but its better than sitting through 3 or 4 minutes of commercials. — Lawrence Kaplan, Park Ridge

A: Yes, thanks. The 30-second skip doesn't work in On Demand, but the 5-minute jump usually does. Still, there are times when you are stuck watching advertisements, as if this were the 1980s or something.

Q: I totally agree with you and I've had Comcast for quite a while. Curious, did you check into AT&T's cable service? They're mailing me at least 3 times a week. — Larry Barston, Buffalo Grove

A: AT&T U-verse, heavy advertiser, sponsor of major sporting events, was not available at my address or I would have given it full consideration. I thought I would have had that option, because the phone-line-based DSL Internet service I had for a couple of years was billed by “AT&T U-verse.” But no: The real U-verse, the multi-room TV service as opposed to the marketing label slapped on pokey, pricey Internet service, needs a fiber-optic cable. And some parts of my densely populated town have it, but my part, apparently, does not.

Q: At the risk of sounding like a complete moron (or worse, a Comcast employee), I am a huge fan of Comcast. Having recently done exactly what you did, I have lowered my cable, Internet, and phone bills considerably while adding virtually all of the movie channels, at least during the promo period. Their service has been over-the-top efficient, especially since so little is expected. And their mobile app, which allows one to begin a recording at home during times you are out of the house, is really very cool. Looking forward to the upgrades. — Steve Reinisch, Wilmette

A: See, Comcast, there are bouquets out there, along with the brickbats. Just get those upgrades going.

Q: We went from Dish to Comcast to DirecTV with much the same story. When will they get it? I suspect they do get it, but don't know how to get out of the promotions arms race. I am seriously going to look at an HD antenna and Web-based on-demand, maybe buy my own DVR when the promotion rates expire. — Tom Steele, Bartlett

A: People like you, Tom, terrify the traditional providers. But it's becoming an ever more feasible strategy, as demonstrated by the many letters I got attesting to satisfaction with the likes of the Netflix service and the Roku box. Tens of millions are already cutting the telephone cord; it seems only a matter of time before mass numbers of people summon the courage to do the same with TV.

sajohnson@tribune.com | Twitter @StevenKJohnson
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