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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kathryn Moody, Contributing Writer
| July 21, 2014
There’s a very good chance that you and your cable company aren’t on good terms. According to a recent survey by cg42, a business consulting group, cable providers experience the worst level of consumer frustration of all industries in the U.S. – even worse than banking. A full 53% of cable customers said they would leave their provider if they thought they could, the survey found.
The reasons for frustration are many, including high costs and poor customer service. No matter what annoys you most about your cable company, there is something you can do about it. We found creative ways for you to conquer your cable frustrations, which will allow you to rest easy while you enjoy your time in front of the television.
A handful of companies dominate the cable industry, and two of the biggest, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, are planning to merge. Not only is the already shallow pool of cable providers shrinking, but in many areas there are few good substitutes, says Steve Beck, managing partner at cg42, the business consulting group that released a study on dissatisfaction with cable service. Among the study’s findings: 73% of customers believe their cable provider takes advantage of consumers’ lack of choice.
Yet alternatives to cable do exist. Bruce Leichtman, a researcher who specializes in the broadband and entertainment industries, says about 90% of Americans have access to satellite TV (such as Dish and DirecTV). About 40% have access to so-called overbuilders: noncable providers such as Verizon that launch their own networks in markets where cable networks already exist. Online services such as Netflix and Hulu offer movies and TV shows to subscribers, no cable box required. (See 9 Places to Get TV and Movies Online for more options.)
A promotional offer can get you phone, TV and Internet service combined for well under $100 a month. But after the promotional period ends, your bill will increase significantly, even though your cable provider continues to advertise the very same cheap deals. As it turns out, those low introductory rates are reserved for new customers only. Existing customers aren’t eligible.
Don’t accept the price hike without a fight. You can haggle your way back to promotional-level pricing with a call to your cable company. Tell the phone agent that you’ll switch providers if the price isn’t lowered, and don’t shy away from mentioning a friend who got a better deal on a similar contract. You could save $35 a month on cable services alone if you just ask. One of our writers did just that—take a few negotiating tips from her.
Consumerist named Comcast the worst company in America for 2014. Time Warner Cable is the lowest-rated provider of subscription TV services among the eight major providers evaluated in the 2014 American Customer Satisfaction Index, an annual survey of consumers’ attitudes about various industries. Joining Time Warner at the bottom of the rankings are Comcast, Charter Communications and Cox Communications. AT&T, DirecTV, Verizon and Dish, none of which is a typical cable provider, rank as the top four providers of subscription TV services. Review Web sites such as Yelp are riddled with one-star (out of five stars) reviews of cable providers.
Use your online voice to get the attention of your cable company. Tweeting at your provider is an effective way to shine light on bad customer service and get your problems resolved. Live chats and good old phone calls aren’t bad solutions, either. Identify a goal—“I want a refund” or “I need a repairman now”—and express it clearly. With a bit of firm politeness (and appreciativeness when the customer service agent comes through), you can get results beyond a simple apology. Tom Karinshak, the executive in charge of customer service at Comcast, says the company has made significant strides, though he admits it still has a ways to go. He says the need to call customer service has declined by 25% since 2010 as Comcast has rolled out more choices for customers including smart phone apps, online account-management and appointment-scheduling tools, and interactive troubleshooting guides.
The explosion of cable networks has taken some of the fun out of channel surfing. Even a basic cable package can feature dozens of channels, while premium packages can run into the hundreds. Yet why should you be forced to pay for Nickelodeon and Sprout when you’re childless and really only interested in watching “Cops” reruns on Spike TV? A la carte cable sounds appealing, but be careful what you wish for, says Leichtman. Bundling channels actually keeps costs down for cable subscribers who otherwise might have to pay $10 a month for Fox News alone, he says.
For consumers who want to cut the cable cord and only pay for specific types of programming, set-top boxes and adapters that link your TV directly to online streaming services are an option. Amazon recently released Fire TV, a tiny box that connects to your HDTV. The Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U and Roku also have Web-to-TV streaming capabilities, and each can connect to a variety of programming sources, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video and some sports streaming sites. You have to pay the upfront cost of the box or adapter (usually between $30 and $130, but upward of $400 for an up-to-date gaming system) and the subscription fee for the streaming services — usually less than $10 a month each.
The best prices per service for phone, TV and Internet often come in bundles. If you are in the market for all three, then a “triple play” bundle deal from your cable provider could be the answer. But there’s a catch: The rock-bottom prices on bundles often require a two-year agreement, with the cheapest rates only applying to the first 12 months. That means the price can go up for months 13 to 24. Cox, for example, offers a triple-play bundle with a two-year agreement for $90 a month for the first year, but the price jumps to $120 a month the second year. There can be an early termination fee if you opt out before the two years are up.
You might be able to save money by creating your own bundle. There’s a good chance you’re happy with your cable company’s Internet service considering cable broadband speeds increased 450% in 2013 alone, according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. If so, keep it and look elsewhere for phone and television services. Unlimited domestic phone service from Web-based Skype, Vonage or Viber ranges from 1.9 cents a minute (Viber Out) to $25 a month (Vonage). Apps even allow you to use your computer, tablet or smart phone to make free calls. A number of streaming services that cost less than $10 a month each offer access to movies and TV shows. A do-it-yourself bundle that uses Netflix ($8.99 per month) and Hulu Plus ($7.99) for programming, plus Skype for calling (unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada for $2.99 a month) and Comcast for high-speed Internet service (about $70 when not on promotion) totals about $90 a month. Compare that to $120 (not on promotion) for a comparable triple-play bundle from Comcast.
The base fee you pay for your cable service is just the start. You’ll fork over more for extra equipment (digital video recorders, digital adapters, upgraded wireless routers), premium programming (sports packages, movie channels) and premium services (faster Internet connections). Ask yourself: Do you really need a DVR for every TV in the house, a subscription to the Australian Rules Football network, and download speeds better suited for NASA Mission Control than your living room? Probably not.
You could save a small fortune simply by paying attention to what you really need and use. Cutting out DVRs and digital adapters on little-used TVs could slash your annual cable bill by $100 or more. Instead, invest in an HD antenna for the spare bedroom. A $40 Mohu Leaf indoor antenna, for example, will grant you access to local channels in high definition without the rental cost of a cable box. Satellite is another cheap option. From Dish, you can get a no-frills plan with 55-plus channels for $20 a month during a promotion. (See 7 Ways to Cut the Cost of Cable for more.)