News - Cable chutzpah

God bless ... er ... help Comcast

By now, unless you've been in a coma or getting your TV with a dish or via antenna (how 20th century of you), you've seen those endless anti-theft vignettes from AT&T Broadband telling us that it's a crime how some people watch television.

In one, a man is dissed in a job interview for his cable-thieving past. In another, a little girl spills the beans on her daddy during show-and-tell, only to find that another classmate has a cop for a daddy. My favorite, though, is the one where rugged G-men in snappy coats hunt down cable pirates as if they were associates of the Gambino crime family.

While I'm not condoning theft, I would think our law enforcement agencies have better things to do than act as collection agents for AT&T Broadband. But, alas, we now know that cops are indeed being used to bust alleged cable thieves in metro Atlanta.

We know this because some of those people are now suing AT&T Broadband, alleging that they were arrested even though they weren't actually stealing cable. In some cases, the company's own shoddy record-keeping is being blamed for the snafu, and, the plaintiffs say, cable company representatives actually came in behind the cops and tried to sell them service.

If proven true, such conduct would be outrageous — but hardly surprising, given the cavalier way AT&T Broadband treats its customers. Indeed, the company's irritating anti-theft commercials are rather like the pirate calling the kettle black. Some unkind wag might even say that it's a crime the way some people provide television.

This is the company that recently decided to solve a persistent problem of customers waiting on hold for ridiculous amounts of time by giving us five customer service numbers to remember, rather than one. Instead of training enough operators to effectively answer a broad range of questions and complete requests quickly, the onus was put on us to remember several numbers and figure out which one to call.

Running a call center isn't rocket science. Instead of this Rube Goldberg scheme, the folks at AT&T Broadband should have trotted their butts over to Georgia Power or BellSouth, which have somehow solved the conundrum of efficient customer service.

But perhaps our friends at AT&T Broadband didn't have time for this because they were plotting other ways to inflict inconvenience on their customers. For instance, a recent engineering change forced people with cable-ready TVs to get converters to receive pay channels — for an extra $3.85 per month.

Hel-lo. The reason people starting buying cable-ready TVs was to eliminate the need for converters. For one thing, you can't use your VCR to record two shows on different channels unless you're at home to change channels on the converter. But hey, if converters make life easier for AT&T Broadband, I guess we should just cheerfully step in line and cough up more dough each month.

Our helpful cable comrades also have started offering a service that allows us to pay our monthly bills via the Internet — for a $1.50 "convenience fee."

Let's get this straight: We pay online, eliminating the need for anyone at AT&T Broadband to open our return envelope and process our check. They get our money electronically, instead of waiting for a check to clear, which, magnified over a customer base of hundreds of thousands of subscribers, provides significant cost advantages to the company. And yet, we pay extra? AT&T Broadband should be taking $1.50 off our bill each month if we agree to pay online, not the other way around.

When AT&T bought out MediaOne, beleaguered cable subscribers in metro Atlanta hoped for a change in attitude. Alas, these recent "innovations" are ample proof that our hope was in vain — that a sow wrapped in silk is still a sow. And now that Comcast Corp. has snatched up AT&T Broadband for $72 billion, one would hope things could only get better — because they can't get worse. Still, it might be up to a year before the deal is finalized.

In the meantime, I have a simple suggestion for the pooh-bahs at the soon-to-be-christened AT&T Comcast Corp.: If you are truly concerned about cable theft, do something about your haughty attitude toward your customers, rather than trying to browbeat us with an endless array of cheesy commercials that look like they were shot by a fifth-grade audio-visual class.

People don't feel bad about cheating the cable company — or the IRS or Microsoft — because they are perceived as indifferent, hostile forces that don't give a damn about the little guy. By contrast, those same people (or at least most of them) would feel bad about stealing from their grandma or the nice man who runs the newsstand on the corner.

Until AT&T Broadband treats its customers with respect, no amount of high-handed sermonizing will staunch the tide of cable theft — even if backed up by hoards of rugged G-men wearing snappy coats.

Richard Shumate is a writer in Sandy Springs, where he is preparing to watch TV via antenna after folks at AT&T Broadband read this screed.??

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