Subscribers irked by cable changes

Are you watching television more, and enjoying it less?

You may be a Comcast cable television customer. Changes to the local programming lineup unveiled last week have some viewers upset by what they see as a downturn in basic service and higher monthly costs.

One subscriber put it this way:

“They took all the not-so-desirable stations and dumped them in the lowest tier. You now get three religious stations, four shopping channels, three C-Span types, and not much else.

“They make it so if you want anything decent, you have to pay no less than $45, not including fees and taxes.”

On Nov. 25, Comcast unveiled a new “Limited” service – some 32 channels – for $31.95 per month.

That price is unchanged from previous service provided by the old franchise holder, Northland Cable Television.

A new “Expanded” package boasts 73 channels total – including such heretofore unknown fare as Country Music Channel, MTV-2 and the Golf Channel – with the monthly price jumping from $42 to $44.99.

But the regrouping of stations means some previously available under basic service now come at a premium, while at least one longtime Northland staple – Turner Classic Movies – was kicked up to a “Digital Cable” tier, for which customers must pay another $11.95 still.

Richard Weaver, a Murden Cove resident, contends that the new lineup masks an overall price hike, in that basic-level subscribers are getting fewer quality channels than they did previously.

In the “Limited” package, he said, “All of the stations above 13 now are pretty much useless.”

Steve Kipp, a spokesman for Comcast, said the lineup was changed to bring it in line with offerings in the company’s other markets.

Prices and other changes, he said, need to be considered in the context of the “millions of dollars” the company has put into upgrading the island’s cable infrastructure, and the new services that are available.

“I think you have to look at ‘what was my total value under Northland, versus what am I getting under Comcast,’” he said. “Clearly, Comcast is offering a lot more value for the money than (subscribers) got under the previous operator.”

Among the new services available or soon to be introduced are high-speed internet access, high-definition television, and “video on demand” programming, similar to pay-per-view or “watch it when you want” Tivo service, although much of it will be free of charge.

Even if customers don’t avail themselves of new services, Kipp said, they will still enjoy better picture quality and fewer outages.

“I think it’s important to know that was once a very antiquated system, one that was in dire need of repair,” he said. “That can’t be overemphasized. We took what was really a very inadequate system and turned it into a state of the art system...”

Kipp conceded that Comcast prices vary by area. Bainbridge cable prices are higher than those in some surrounding communities, he said, but “fall within the parameters” of industry averages.

Too, he said, cable prices around Washington tend to be lower than the rest of the country.

As to recent complaints, Kipp said, “Whenever you change channels, even if it’s one channel, you can expect to get some calls from customers.”

Comcast wound up with island’s cable television franchise after merging with AT&T Broadband, just as the latter company was purchasing the franchise from longtime holder Northland.

Since then, the company has upgraded its facilities to provide digital cable service that offer hundreds more channels and rival the offerings of satellite services.

Under the franchise agreement, the company turned over the old Northland office next to Strawberry Hill Park to Bainbridge Island Broadcasting, and has provided equipment and other support for that group.

Still unclear is whether the company’s announced plans to make the surrounding 10 acres available to the island community for ball fields will come to pass.

A document now in circulation makes the property available for outright purchase by the school or park districts, but makes no direct reference to a near-term lease for ball fields or any other public use if those agencies can’t afford to buy the land immediately.

Park district attorney Bob Conoley said this week that he was continuing to make inquiries with Comcast officials, to see whether ball fields are “still on the table.”

With all of Comcast’s system upgrades and new channels and services, Weaver and some others suggest that many viewers might well be happy with fewer choices, not more.

Weaver said he was told by a Comcast representative that a “basic basic” package of local, over-the-air channels from Seattle – for viewers who want nothing but the big networks and local news, with better reception – would be available for $15 per month.

That sort of tier, he said, would be popular with many families, including his own.

Kipp said that such an option was considered and is available in other Comcast markets, but the company opted not to provide it on Bainbridge.

Weaver said that for now, his family has taken advantage of a Comcast promotion by which they will get “Expanded” service for a discount for the next three months.

“What we do at the end of three months, we haven’t decided,” he said. “We may just drop cable altogether, put an antenna out there and make do.”

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