April 29, 2013
The $300 bill was the breaking point.
Maria Wanat Tillitson called WOW and fought for a discount on her packaged cable service, which included TV, home phone and Internet. That was three years ago, and she has been doing it ever since. The 34-year-old customer service representative from Warren, whose monthly charge now is $110 for all three services, even poses as her parents in phone calls to their cable company to ensure her mom and dad in Berkley don't, in her opinion, overpay.
"They've been trying to slam me. They give you year contracts. I forget about it and the next thing I know, I have a $300 bill," she said. "It's just something that has to be done to keep the bills down. ... To be honest, I would keep calling back until I get what I wanted." Today, Michigan residents have more cable choices than ever. That doesn't mean they're happier, though. The number of customer complaints and inquiries in 2012 jumped 16% over the previous year, the Michigan Public Service Commission said in its annual report released in February. Those 880 complaints include everything from charges and credits to billing, service outages and customer service. The U.S. is home to 56.3 million cable households, more than 2.3 million of them in Michigan. But many of the "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" addicts, rabid sports fans and C-SPAN aficionados may not realize their bills are negotiable.
In the cutthroat world of cable TV and Internet service, subscribers have a lot of power. Complaining households can usually haggle for a better deal. Some plead poverty - either truthfully or dramatically - to customer service representatives, while others threaten to switch to a competitor. "For consumers, you have the opportunity to negotiate and save, and you have to be aware that this is kind of a big game," said Jeff Blyskal, senior editor at Consumer Reports. "If you're coming to the company to say, 'I'm going to disconnect my service,' that's the nuclear option."
Cable TV subscribers who live in areas with more than one cable company can can pit one company against another. Eighty-one communities in Michigan have two providers, and 24 have three, according to the state Public Service Commission. As of January, Michigan had 48 video/cable providers. Comcast, Charter Communications and AT&T Michigan (U-verse) have the largest number of subscribers in the state. But even in communities with a single company monopoly, there are satellite companies and the cord-cutters - people who drop cable TV completely and go the Netflix-Hulu-Roku route, although they're still wed to the cable company for Internet service.
This haggling-friendly environment is unique, much like the nature of the cable industry itself. The local power company won't let customers debate their kilowatt-per-hour charge, nor will a retailer let them argue over the price of pants. Introductory offers usually are alluring. For example, Charter offers 60-plus channels, Internet and unlimited calling for $20 a month to lure new customers. Once the company gets them in, the limited-time deal expires - usually after 90 days or six months - and bills balloon.
Cable TV - created in the late 1940s as a way for people in rural America to be able to watch TV like their urban counterparts - gained popularity in the 1970s and '80s, according to Michael Watza, an attorney at the Kitch firm in Detroit, who teaches communications law and policy at Michigan State University's College of Law. Though the Federal Communications Commission began regulating cable in 1966, it wasn't until 1984 that Congress passed the federal Cable Act. In those years, an area was serviced by one cable company, but in 1992, Congress began deregulating the industry and prohibiting exclusive cable franchises. Deregulation was amplified by further federal legislation in 1996 and Michigan Public Act 480 in 2006. "There's more competition for cable companies now, so they're not the monopoly they once were," Blyskal said. That's where haggling comes in.
None of the cable providers surveyed would discuss how much leeway is given to customer-service reps to negotiate with customers calling for a better deal. "We handle it with a customer on a case-by-case basis," said Comcast spokeswoman Mary Beth Halprin. "There's flexibility to work with the customer to find the package that works for them. A competitive marketplace is part of what drives pricing."
Frank D'Anna, 53, of Warren pays about $260 monthly to AT&T U-verse for cable TV, Internet and phone service - $60 less than his first house payment. He's unwilling to cut AT&T U-verse, though, because he wants the MLB Network. He also doesn't want the hassle of continually haggling over his cable bill or switching services. "I don't want to play that game. I'll end up right where I am anyway," said the automotive engineer. "It's frustrating.' The agitation was enough to make Barbara Ongstad drop cable altogether in January after 28 years, though she admits missing Red Wings hockey and "The Daily Show." The 49-year-old church sexton from Charlotte had been paying WOW about $115 for basic cable and Internet. "Your cable just keeps going up. No one's ever had a cable bill go down. When we started, it was like $25," she said. "We're not at all unhappy. We have an antenna, like the old days, and we get 35 channels." Detroit Free Press; see also tips on negotiating cable rates
Yet another bad polling day for incumbent Republican Gov. Corbett needs a little bit of political perspective.
A new Quinnipiac University poll released Monday morning shows that if the election (which is 18 months away) were today, any one of three Democrats (only one of which is actually an announced candidate) would beat Corbett with relative ease. Announced candidate U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz would win by 13 points (47-34); potential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak would win by 14 points (48-34) and potential candidate state Treasurer Rob McCord would win by nine points (44-35). There's no way to make any of that sound like good news for Corbett.
But. All polling at this stage is a name-ID game in the absence of an actual campaign. Such polling cannot by its nature consider certain critical political factors. Such as: Democrats are far from settled on a candidate (the poll says 59-percent are "undecided"); none of seven possible candidates listed in the poll has more than 15-percent support; one candidate, Tom Wolf, who has says he'll spend at least $10 million of his own money, hasn't begun to do so; and a Democrat who could be very competitive in a primary and who says she's running, former state Environmental Protection secretary Katie McGinty, isn't even mentioned in the poll.
Plus, the basic rule of politics is you need someone to beat someone. Right now Democrats have no one. There isn't even a settled field of Democratic candidates. And there is no campaign in which past records and future promises can be measured, evaluated, debated and judged. Again, nothing here can cheer Corbett (well, okay, one thing can; the poll says 60 percent of Republicans believe he deserves reelection, which could mean Republicans aren't looking for an alternative such as, for example, Bruce Castor).
But it's important to remember the "anyone but Corbett" suggestion of the poll must be tempered by the fact that it's far from clear who the "anyone" will be, what resources the "anyone" will have after what's shaping up as a long, expensive Democratic primary, and what happens in the state over the next year -- which is multiple lifetimes in politics. Polls are fodder for fundraisers and media. Just remember past polls suggested at various times the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 would be Michele Bachmann, New Gingrich or Herman Cain. philly.com
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