Comcast (Merger) Must Die
Remember Comcast Must Die?
It was a blog jihad I mounted back in 2007 not to kill the cable provider, but to shame it into some modicum of customer-service responsibility. The project had not one but two jingles, a horrifying/funny video and a podcast. But what it mainly had going for it was righteousness. Thousands upon thousands of frustrated customers used the blog as a CRM tool of last resort -- and so did Comcast, which was reduced to employing a site called Comcast Must Die to fix problems it was incapable of solving through its own vast but ineffectual system.
The company reacted deplorably. Its “good cop” side tried to co-opt me with personalized, platinum customer service, while the “bad cop” bullied me and my then employer, Crain Communications, by pulling $1 million in advertising.) But it also eventually came to heel by using my site, by empowering its own frontline employees to actually solve consumer issues and by hiring top-level executives with the authority to impose internal change. In short, consumers won.
Mind you, Comcast still ranks near the bottom in customer satisfaction -- even in a category that itself brings up the rear -- but it is light years ahead of where it stood seven years ago. And juggernaut though it may be, it is listening.
And here’s what it will be listening to for the next year: more righteous rage.
The proposed merger with Time Warner Cable -- which the company is trying to justify with an utterly dishonest piece of misdirection -- would be a disaster for the customer base and the society.
The first problem is very much on Comcast Must Die's turf: the inevitable deterioration of already poor customer service. It was the very eyes-bigger-than-its stomach problem the company used back then to explain why it couldn't get a truck to your house within a 4-hour window. It was struggling, the executives repeatedly told me, to harmonize the systems of all the disparate cable systems it had acquired to achieve such awesome scale. Now it proposes to fold in Time Warner Cable, which in itself boasts one of the worst customer-service records in America. Yeah, that should go swimmingly.
The greater issue, however, is a classic antitrust nightmare on both major ends of the business: cable TV and broadband.
On the TV side, a merged company will give Comcast far too much clout in negotiations with broadcasters and producers for acquisition of content. And by “too much clout” I mean: take it or leave it. No programmer can afford to be without the distribution, and revenue, represented by this colossus. As it is, the major networks are now de facto cable channels, depending more on retransmission fees than on the inevitably shrinking advertising pie for the future revenue.
Of course, that's a short-term problem. The real issue here is broadband market share. Even if network neutrality is restored by legislation or regulatory reclassification of broadband pipes as common carriers, the fact is that in our lifetimes virtually all programming will be entering our devices over the Internet. Giving Comcast more market share would give one company a third of the entire online infrastructure -- i.e., the core of our economy, our communications network, and increasingly, our very way of life.
So naturally, Comcast's public relations message is: don't worry! No, they assure us, there is not a single ZIP code in which Comcast and Time Warner compete!
This is supposed to make us believe they have no more leverage to jack up prices. But of course, that is hardly the point; cable companies are local monopolies almost everywhere they do business. The point is that one company would have a gigantic share of production (NBC Universal), acquisition (Comcast-Xfinity) and distribution (co-ax to your home). As a matter of public policy that would be insanity. And if network neutrality is not restored, we will have created a vertically integrated and horizontally vast megacorporation that would make the old Standard Oil look like a mom ‘n pop.
I'm not saying Comcast must die. But this merger should. And will.