October 6, 2013

Time Warner Cable’s reputation tarnished

A virtual monopoly in much of Maine has enabled the cable TV provider to get away with poor customer service, surveys suggest.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

David Hedrick recently got a big price break on his Time Warner Cable bill.

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Tim Ryan of Lisbon sits in front of his television with Dish Network service last month. Ryan canceled his Time Warner TV service in favor of the DISH network after eight years as a Time Warner customer. He said price increases and rigid customer service representatives – who shut his service off after he missed his bill deadline by a day – convinced him to drop the cable provider.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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But rather than being pleased, he’s upset. And he’s not the only one.

Despite growing competition from Internet streaming services, satellite TV, tablets and other technology, Time Warner gets failing grades from many customers and on customer service rating reports. The company has consistently scored lower than competitors in several recent national consumer surveys.

Time Warner’s reputation for poor customer relations is so widespread that it was the butt of a joke on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central last week. Stewart called Congress “the Time Warner Cable of democracy.”

While Time Warner is not technically a monopoly, its actions in Maine and nationally over some two decades make customers, consumer advocates and industry experts say the communications giant behaves like one. If you want cable television in most Maine markets, you have no choice but to use Time Warner.

After years of watching his rates go up, and recently being told he has to pay $5.99 a month for an Internet modem he had been using for free for about 14 years, Hedrick finally decided to go to a Time Warner office and complain.

When he couldn’t get a clear answer on some of the charges on his bill, Hedrick threatened to switch to a satellite TV service. The Time Warner representative responded by offering Hedrick about $35 off his monthly bill for one year – $94.11 monthly, as opposed to $129.

He took it, but he doesn’t like the idea behind it.

“I have a concern that this essentially unregulated monopoly, which so many of us depend on as much or more than we do electricity, water or telephone service, can charge whatever it can get away with, and on what appears to be a sliding scale based on customer discontent,” said Hedrick, 71, of Waterville, a retired Army officer and former hospital administrator.

Lots of other customers seem to agree with Hedrick. Time Warner came in 15th among 17 pay-TV services in a Consumer Reports survey in May, and ranked last or second to last for TV, phone and Internet services in the American Customer Service Index, or ACSI, that same month.

The latter survey ranked the nation’s largest communications companies – eight for TV and seven for phone and Internet. For the last seven years, Time Warner been rated in the bottom half of cable TV companies ranked in the ACSI.

The mention of Time Warner on “The Daily Show” last week came in a segment on the government shutdown by correspondent John Oliver.

“Congress already has a 90 percent incumbency rate that goes along with a 10 percent approval rating. The only previous instance of that level of disapproval combined with that level of market-retention is Time Warner Cable,” Oliver said. This prompted Stewart to counter, “If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying that Congress is the Time Warner Cable of democracy.”

With almost 400,000 customers in Maine and New Hampshire, Time Warner is the largest combined cable TV, Internet and phone provider in the state. Over a period of about 20 years, it has captured a virtual monopoly on cable TV in the Maine communities where it operates.

Time Warner has about 15 percent of the U.S. cable market, but it saw its TV subscriptions decline by about 4.5 percent over the past year or so, as more people turn to online video services such as Netflix, according to Seeking Alpha, a stock market analysis website.

At the same time, industry experts expect Time Warner’s Internet service to grow by about 3.2 percent this year, the website said. Again, Netflix and other low-cost online video services were named as causes.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Time Warner

Have you had good customer service from Time Warner?

Yes

No

View Results