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Want basic cable plus a few premium channels at best price? Be persistent

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Patricia Sabatini, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Short of giving up pay TV and hauling out the rabbit ears, subscribers hooked on cable can find ways to cut their bills.

One option, of course, is to sacrifice some channels and buy a Spartan level of service, which can save a bundle.

Comcast, for example, offers "basic" cable service that includes about 20 channels for around $12 a month, compared with nearly $40 for standard service offering roughly 70 channels.

Subscribers also can take advantage of a new federal regulation, effective last October, that requires cable companies to offer all customers the option of buying premium channels, such as HBO, even if they subscribe to the cheapest level of service.

Previously, most cable companies forced customers to buy a more expensive package if they wanted access to premium channels.

"Customers paying for channels they never watch just to get HBO or Showtime can now save money by downgrading," said David Butler, a spokesman for Consumers Union.

Don't expect the switch to be easy, however.

When the Post-Gazette called the customer service lines of the three biggest cable TV providers in the region -- Comcast, Adelphia Communications and Armstrong Cable -- asking for the cheapest way to get HBO, we got conflicting answers.

At Adelphia, the representative first tried to sell us a premium-priced digital cable package with HBO for close to $60 a month. After some prodding, we were told "the very cheapest way" to get HBO would be to downgrade from digital to regular cable service, costing us about $56 a month. On the third try, the representative got it right: We could buy basic service at $8.75 and add HBO for $14, lowering our monthly rate to $22.75 a month.

The call to Comcast proved even tougher. We repeatedly insisted on ordering the most basic cable service, plus HBO, but were told emphatically that it couldn't be done. The only way to get access to HBO is to buy an expanded service package for a total cost of $60 a month, the representative said.

Wrong. Customers in fact can buy basic service, add on HBO, plus pay $5 for a converter box, for a total of $33 a month, Comcast's regional spokesman, Brian Jeter, explained. That's roughly half the price we were quoted.

"The information you got from the call center is inaccurate," Jeter acknowledged. "We may have to retrain [customer service reps] on the changes."

At Armstrong Cable in Butler the news was even worse. The company doesn't offer a stripped down, value-priced cable package, so the cheapest way to get HBO is to buy the standard 70-channel service for $36.90 and add HBO, for a total of $50.85 per month.

Armstrong Cable President Mike Haislip said the company isn't required to offer bare-bones service because it wasn't offering it at the time the regulation was enacted.

Butler of Consumers Union said cable subscribers need to be persistent when asking for the best rate.

"Don't expect them to offer you the least expensive service," he said. "They're trying to make as much money as they can in a deregulated market."

Patricia Sabatini can be reached at psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.

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