Friday, August 23, 2013

Cable re-revisited

A couple of months ago, we unexpectedly found ourselves with cable TV for the first time. We hadn't intended to buy cable service; what we actually wanted was VOiP phone service to replace our increasingly unreliable Verizon landline, but it turned out that the cheapest way to get it was to sign up for Cablevision's 3-part package deal. Under the terms of this deal, we would get cable, phone, and broadband Internet, all for 85 bucks a month—5 dollars less than it would cost to pay for phone and Internet separately, and actually slightly less than the total amount we were already paying per month for broadband from Cablevision, local phone service from Verizon, and long distance from a little no-name provider called TCI. So it seemed like a good deal all around.

Until we got our first bill.

Now, I knew this bill was going to be a little higher than the flat $85 we'd normally pay, because it would include a $40 charge for transferring over our old phone number. So I was expecting it to come to about $125, or maybe a little higher with taxes. But the actual number was $187.31—more than twice as high as the monthly rate they'd promised us. W, as they say, TF?

I got onto Cablevision's website and started up a chat session with a customer support person called Lata, who was kind enough to walk me through the bill line by line. Our three-part service was broken out into three parts: $14.95 for phone service, $29.95 for Internet, and $40.05 for TV. All right so far, and the $40 charge for "number activation" was one I expected. Then there was $30 for installation (unexpected, but at least it was a one-time charge), $7 for taxes, and $15.46 in "partial month activity" because we'd signed up in the middle of the month. So that left only two items unaccounted for: a $7 charge for "1 Cable Box(es)" and a $3 "surcharge" for "Sports Programming." Okay, these weren't exactly big-ticket items, but they still added up to an extra $10 a month above what I'd agreed to, and I wanted to know what for.

Well, the $7 charge, she explained, was for the rental of the cable box. What, that wasn't included in the supposed $85 flat fee? No, of course not; the $85 charge is only for the services, not the equipment. Oh, so if we supplied our own cable box, we wouldn't have to pay $7 a month to rent one from you? Well, no, you have to use our equipment—but we don't include the cost of it in the advertised rate, because "every customer needs a different number of cable boxes in their home." So it's not really $85, it's $85 plus $7 per cable box. (That was all in the "fine print," apparently, though it must have been very fine indeed, since I don't remember seeing it anywhere when I signed up for the deal.)

Okay, and the $3 sports programming "surcharge"? What was that—an optional fee for additional sports programming (that we hadn't actually asked for)? Well, no, apparently it was a pricing gimmick by Cablevision, though Lata didn't use those words. The way she put it was, "Over the past two years, Cablevision has not raised cable TV prices, despite the rising cost of programming, particularly sports programming. Due to the cost of sports programming rising dramatically, Cablevision is instituting a Sports Programming Surcharge, to recover a small portion of these costs." So they hadn't "raised prices"; instead they'd added a non-optional "surcharge" on all accounts that include sports channels. This applied to the "Optimum Value" TV service included with the $85 package deal, raising its real cost to $88 a month—not counting the $7 per cable box.

Here, however, was where the conversation started to get interesting. Lata explained that the reason the $3 fee counted as a "surcharge" was because you could "opt out of it" by downgrading to the cheapest TV service: the Optimum Economy package. My ears pricked up at this, since it was an option I hadn't heard anything about when we first signed up. By switching to the economy package, Lata said, we could lower our monthly charge to $77 before taxes—including the $7 cable box rental. She did warn that we would "lose a lot of programming with that change," but since we'd never actually intended to get cable in the first place, I wasn't terribly concerned about that. I told her to go ahead.

I wasn't prepared to celebrate, however, until we'd actually received our second three-part bill from Cablevision and I could actually see that the promised savings were there. When the bill arrived today, it momentarily confused me once again, this time because it was lower than I'd expected—but a quick examination revealed that the reason was that this bill also included "partial month activity," this time in our favor. Since we were partway into the August billing cycle when I spoke to Lata, she credited us the cost of the Optimum Value TV package (including the sports surcharge) for the rest of the month and replaced it with the lower cost for the Optimum Economy package. So next month's bill should finally show the normal amount we can expect to pay going forward, which should be around $80, tax and all.

So when all is said and done, we are, in fact, spending less with Cablevision now than we used to spend with Cablevision plus Verizon plus TCI. And, on top of that, we still have at least nominal access to cable TV, which is more than we had before. With our downgrade to Optimum Value, we no longer get Lifetime, so we can't watch Project Runway directly; we'll still have to go through the website (and since it appears to have only the most recent episode available to non-subscribers, we'll have to furtively download some episodes to get caught up on the current season, which apparently started when we weren't looking). But we still have HGTV, so I can still watch the occasional "Flea Market Flip" or "Love it or List It" through our "TV to Go" service—which means we do, in fact, have more entertainment options now than we had a few months ago, and we're paying less. Result!
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