HBO move riles some Comcast customers

Posted: March 21, 2007

Comcast Corp. is giving some viewers a little agita by pushing HBO into its more expensive digital-cable tier just weeks before The Sopranos begins its final season.

The switch adds as much as $4.95 per cable box to an affected customer's monthly bill, though Comcast says only a small number will have to pay that.

The change doesn't sit well with some customers, who see it as reducing their service or forcing them to pay more for channels they already have.

"I guess the thing that bothers me is, the service is bad and rates keep increasing," said Alan Letofsky, one of many customers who recently received a notice from Comcast saying they would need a digital-cable box to keep HBO, which telecasts The Sopranos. "We just don't want to give any more money to Comcast."

Letofsky, of Haverford, has a digital box on one of his sets, but analog service on the other two. To keep HBO on all three sets, he said, he would have to pay an extra $9.90 - $4.95 each for two boxes - per month. He already pays $83.05 for Comcast cable.

He said he would switch to another cable company if he could.

That's what Barbara Simmons of Churchville, Bucks County, did recently after Comcast pushed EWTN, or the Eternal World Television Network, into its digital tier. She and her sick mother both enjoy the Catholic channel and its prayer services.

"You feel like you're praying with a community of people," Simmons said. She believed she would have had to pay $20 more per month to upgrade to digital, though Comcast says the cost should have been the same or no more than $1.10 a month.

So she switched to Verizon's fiber-optic TV service as soon as it became available in her area. She saved money and still gets EWTN.

A decision to move EWTN and C-SPAN2 to Comcast's digital tier late last year caused an uproar at Pennswood Village, a Bucks County community of 450 people over age 65.

"Pennswood was up in arms," said Alice Garr, chairwoman of the village's ad hoc TV services committee, which was formed solely to deal with the issue.

Pennswood and Comcast reached a compromise. Comcast gave the community digital service for one year at no extra cost, but it's not clear what will happen after that.

C-SPAN2, with its book discussions, and EWTN were very popular with Pennswood residents, Garr said. People were trying to say, there has to be "some way to get less of the garbage and more of what we want."

Garr noted, however, that the new digital service comes with more channels than the analog.

And that is part of Comcast's pitch in making the changes.

"This allows us to utilize additional bandwidth to deliver more of what customers continue to ask us for - more high-definition TV, on demand, and other services," Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said.

Most cable companies are moving content from analog to digital service. It helps them save bandwidth at a time when customers are demanding more on-demand movies, Internet video, and other bandwidth-hogging content.

It also helps cable companies boost revenue because it allows them to sell digital customers on-demand movies, digital video recorders, and other services.

Analog and digital are simply different ways of transmitting a television or other signal. Digital allows for clearer, sharper pictures.

These changes have irked some customers here and across the country. In Southern California, complaints about pressure to switch to digital TV contributed to the ouster of a top Time Warner Cable Inc. executive.

"Making popular channels unavailable on the basic services is one strategy they've pursued to move consumers to those higher-priced services," said Beth McConnell, director of the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, a public advocacy organization.

Some customers may find that they can negotiate better-than-advertised rates, she said.

Comcast said it could not provide a list of channels it had shifted from analog to digital because changes vary according to market.

Comcast already has moved Showtime and Cinemax to its digital tier and has gradually been shifting HBO there. It did so last year in Montgomery and Bucks Counties and has been making the switch since late February in systems serving Philadelphia, Delaware and Chester Counties and New Castle, Del.

Alexander said the company had taken steps to reduce the extra costs to affected customers. Depending on their current level of service, analog customers will pay no more than $5 a month more to get digital TV, he said. In some cases, the cost will be zero.

Any extra cost is to pay for the digital box. Digital service itself usually costs about $12 more than analog per month, but Comcast said it was not charging that in these situations.

Comcast would not say how many HBO customers were affected in markets where the shift from analog to digital is happening now.

Todd Chanko, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said that industrywide about 10 percent of analog customers get HBO. About half of Comcast's 24 million subscribers are analog customers, so as the company makes the change nationally, it will have affected about 1.2 million customers.

HBO has 29 million subscribers nationally, in part because of the popularity of The Sopranos, a series about New Jersey mobsters who experience a fair amount of agita - mobspeak for anxiety or upset - themselves. The new Sopranos season starts April 8.


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.

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