Cable's bad reputation lasts long after things change

Jim BartholdInvariably, Major League Baseball's annual all-star game is a point of controversy because fans, given the opportunity to vote, select a player on past merit rather than season statistics.

The "knowledgeable" fans predictably recoil and newspapers and the broadcasters shudder as the game defends its method of using the fans to put fans in the seats. In the end, the game is played and none of it really matters ... except for maybe the two teams that get to go to the World Series.

Which leads to the Consumerist and the Worst Company in America. As everyone who knows anything already knows, Comcast won this hotly contested consumer voting competition last year and, as the defending champion, has already swept through this year's first round against Charter.

This hardly seems fair. Charter's executives have, on more than one occasion, bemoaned the company's image for customer service and whipped a frenzy of excitement behind doing a better job; and Charter is much smaller than Comcast so there's a better chance that more people will have the opportunity to be disenchanted or disillusioned with Comcast than Charter.

Obviously any thinking, non-biased person can easily discern this, which leads to the logical conclusion that Comcast is loaded with non-thinking biased people because the company tried to stuff the ballot box against Charter. When that was inevitably noticed, Comcast stated that it was only doing what The Consumerist suggested--getting its employees to vote for the other guy--and besides, its employees are proud of their company and hate to see this name besmirched.

It would be a pretty good explanation, too, except that anyone who's been around any cable company (and Comcast is still a cable company) knows that cable operators are humorless. Their nature is to be extremely sensitive to criticism with a dearth of humor. So, no matter what explanation the MSO felt was necessary to give--and FierceCable did kind of force one out of them--the company shot itself in the foot by rallying the troops to protest.

Where The Consumerist went astray, though, is in suggesting that Comcast did this rather than work to solve the problem. That's not true. Like every cable operator Comcast has been warned for years that arrogance and disdain mixed with disinterest and rudeness do not work well in a consumer-driven society. And just like every cable operator, Comcast ignored the warnings while offering potent lip service to customer service. As a monopoly, cable ranked right up there with the telephone companies in delivering bona fide genuine non-customer service.

That's changed. The old cable companies, the ones that once sent a collection agency after a delinquent $10 bill for a summer home; that sent a bill for lost equipment to the owner of a home that burned down; that blithely told a homeowner to "get an electrician" when in-home wiring was inadequate for HDTV; and that left an installer on hold for so long the poor fellow dropped off into sleep are gone. They've been replaced by companies with employees who seem to genuinely care about their customers--or at least pretend they do.

Ironically, this point came up when a Comcast tech visited my home office right after the voting brouhaha. He had, he said, received the e-mail telling him how to vote. He was, he said, genuinely upset that Comcast would be considered the worst company in America. And he asked, honestly, what kind of job I think Comcast is doing.

"Better." I said.

It's just that the rep the company built up over so many years has made it the veteran-in-decline ballplayer who's still voted onto the all-star team ... even if that team is the Worst Company in America. It's not fair now, perhaps, but it's merited by past performance.

It's what happens when the fans do the voting.--Jim