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TV's odd couple: Set-top partnership could bruise Apple or crisp up Comcast

Philip Michaels | March 28, 2014
Last summer, I called Comcast to cancel a $10-a-month sports package that I no longer wanted to receive. By the time I hung up the phone, I had been signed up for a phone service I didn't need, and my cable bill, rather than going down by $10, had been raised by around $40.

Last summer, I called Comcast to cancel a $10-a-month sports package that I no longer wanted to receive. By the time I hung up the phone, I had been signed up for a phone service I didn't need, and my cable bill, rather than going down by $10, had been raised by around $40.

I won't pretend that I was entirely blameless in this transaction: I had only been half-heartedly listening to the phone rep's rapidly mumbled sales pitch when I was asked if I wanted to save money on my monthly bill. Well, sure, I said, since that was the whole point of the call. The phone service was added, but the promised monthly savings didn't materialize. In a subsequent call to Comcast, I could never find a representative who could adequately explain the opaque billing process.

Let's make a long story short: We eventually sorted everything out, after my wife determined that I lacked the adequate mental reserves to do battle with Comcast. The phone service was canceled, and the monthly bill was returned to a mutually agreeable level, but only after three days' worth of phone calls and online chat sessions between my wife and a series of increasingly overmatched Comcast customer service reps, culminating in a threat to spend the rest of our lives staring at cave paintings if it meant never having to pay Comcast another dime.

I don't share this story because it's particularly remarkable; in fact, I'd be surprised if I ran into a long-time Comcast subscriber who didn't have a customer service nightmare scenario to relate. But with reports circulating that Apple is about to tie its fortunes in the set-top box business to the hulking millstone that is Comcast, I worry that my frustrating experiences with a cable company I can barely tolerate are about to creep into my interactions with a company that's treated me well over the years.

Anecdotal evidence is only as strong as the person telling the anecdote, of course, but my track record as an Apple customer has been pretty solid, especially when things have gone pear-shaped. A few months back, Apple double-billed me for an iOS app I downloaded. We resolved the matter over email in about a day. On the rare occasions that I've needed hands-on assistance, I've found the staff at Apple's Genius Bar to be courteous, knowledgeable, and generally able to fix things that weren't beyond all hope of human intervention.

Contrast that with my last Comcast service call, prompted by our cable signal's new habit of dropping out intermittently. The Comcast technician came out to our house, took a look at the box, and told us that that the dropped signal was the result of "improvements" to Comcast's X1 platform. He said if the problem occurred frequently, we should just turn our cable box on and off. Comcast charged us $50 for that visit. Our signal still cuts out from time to time. (On the bright side, that sure is a lot of "improvement" going on!)

 

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