Soundings : Reading the fine print
Beginning this December, cable TV service on Martha's Vineyard is getting better - and more expensive.
"Open up a whole new world with the next generation of television entertainment," Comcast proclaims in its latest price sheet, which the company provided at my request last week. It's true that the digital revolution is fundamentally changing the way cable companies deliver programs. What Comcast doesn't dwell on, however, is how it's using this moment to open up a whole new hole in your wallet.
The new rates that go into effect December 1 don't look bad at first glance. The no-frills Basic Cable service goes from $17 to $18 per month, carrying the broadcast channels out of Providence and Boston and precious little else. Standard Cable, well-named because it's the most common choice among Island subscribers, serves up about 70 channels at a monthly fee that jumps in December from $59.90 to $63.49.
That's a hike of about 6 percent. But the first hint of things to come appears in this footnote on the rate sheet: "Effective Dec. 1, 2008, Standard Cable will no longer be available for new subscription."
Clearly, the intent of Comcast is to phase out Standard Cable and herd us all up into the tier it calls Digital Starter, which costs $67.44 per month. Think of Digital Starter as the new Standard Cable for subscribers on Martha's Vineyard. And keep your eyes on those footnotes.
If you watch much television, you know how Comcast loves to tout its high-definition offerings. That's understandable, given that customers who've shelled out big bucks for new HD sets want to view HD signals on them. Comcast already lists 26 HD channels in the Standard Cable tier. But again, a footnote warns us: "After Dec. 1, 2008, new customers or customers changing or reconnecting their services, will be required to subscribe to Digital Starter to view these channels."
To put it bluntly, Standard Cable is history. Digital cable is the future, a future laden with new choices and brighter, sharper pictures - and we're all going to pay for it.
To enjoy HD signals, or any of the stations on the newly-created Digital Starter tier, you'll need one of Comcast's new high-definition cable boxes, which rent for $7 per month. In fact, you'll need one box for each set in your house. If you've been getting Standard Cable service straight from the Comcast wire, moving up to Digital Starter is going to boost your fees by more than 24 percent - at least another $174.48 per year.
Digital Starter service gives you access to what Comcast calls Channel 1, which is where the brave new world of digital television really begins. Channel 1 connects your set to a huge server loaded with thousands of free and pay-per-view programs. It's not the quality of this fare that's amazing, but the quantity. And, thanks to the fact that coaxial cable lets you talk back to Comcast, you can request programs from the Channel 1 list whenever you want to see them rather than having to wait for them to come on at their designated time.
The Digital Starter tier does add a few unimpressive channels - most of which used to be part of the Standard Cable tier and got moved up. But the real point of Digital Starter is the set-top boxes. Those boxes represent Comcast's opportunity to sell us premium services which range from the Sports Entertainment Pack at $7.95 per month to Howard Stern at $119.99 per year, new DVD movie releases at $4.99 each and "Adult Programming" at $13.99 per film.
I've got no beef with these offerings, which Comcast customers can purchase or pass up as the mood suits them. If a cable subscriber wants to run the monthly bill up to $200 and more with premium pay programs, good for them.
What isn't fair to customers is that Comcast has once more expanded the gulf between the cost of Basic service and the next available tier. It's like visiting the auto dealership and being given the choice of an old rust-bucket or a new Lexus, and nothing in between.
My guess is that thousands of Comcast's Vineyard customers would be perfectly content with 70 channels - or even with 40 if we could pick and choose. But Comcast is betting that we won't go back to Basic at $18 per month, and saying to its Island customers, "Here's the new standard service package: Take it or leave it." That's how monopoly businesses tend to operate, and it's too bad.
At my house, we also use Comcast's Internet service, which means that if we end up dragged, whimpering, into the Digital Starter tier, we'll soon be paying Comcast about $1,500 per year. That's in the ballpark with the property taxes we pay for all the services our town provides - schools and library, police and fire protection, road and harbor services, water and sewers, parks and public health, everything. What's wrong with this picture?