How Will Comcast Deal Play Out In Social Media?

If you view cable companies as inherently evil, it’s easy to concoct the conspiracy theory that Comcast and Time Warner Cable exquisitely timed the announcement of their planned merger to the biggest snowstorm of the year. Who has time to go on Twitter and whine about such things, when there is snow to shovel and home-from-school kids to entertain?

But tweet they did:

Comcast is buying Time Warner Cable. Now we're gonna see if shit customer service can truly scale. -- @davepell

When Comcast eats up Time-Warner, is the new company just going to be called Monopoly? -- @BastardMachine

Wow, a Comcast/Time Warner merger would create a combined customer service department of well over ten employees. -- @PourMeCoffee

If Comcast buys Time Warner, that means my broadband provider options in Newport Beach will go from 1 to 1. We're so under served. -- @dannysullivan

OK, all that was (very) good for a laugh. But the reason I’m fixated on this merger is because the question must be asked: Does it even matter that the vox populi universally hates the idea of these two companies coming together? Will anything come of it?

Leave it to other columnists to ponder the antitrust ramifications. There are plenty of worthy column inches being devoted to whether the cable companies really have competition since – while they do have more content competition than they used to -- they also often own the pipes that deliver the content more and more people are cutting their cable cord for.

For the purposes of this column, the real question is whether Comcast and Time Warner Cable will hear the consumer disgruntlement over the proposed merger for what it is: the perfect vehicle for expressing general, ongoing, free-floating angst about cable companies, from their ever-growing fees, to the fact they charge for just about everything, to the enduringly lousy customer service.

Now the cable companies, of course, are no fools. They know about their awful reputation. One of the earliest examples of social media-based customer service was @comcastcares (easy to misread as @comcastscares, but that’s another story), and I fully expect the video of the Comcast cable guy falling asleep at someone’s house to once again become a meme. (You may recall that he fell asleep while on hold with Comcast.)

Comcast is not alone; there are plenty of negative sites devoted to Time Warner Cable’s unresponsiveness as well. The website timewarnercableproblems.com has this wonderful explanation about its name: “This website was established in 2009 as timewarneraustinsucks.com. Due to the overwhelming number of complaints against Time Warner, the site was renamed timewarnercableproblems.com in order to serve all of Time Warner's victims, wherever they may be.”

However, despite being derided by consumers for almost as long as they’ve existed, there’s no sign that cable companies have done much to rehab their reputation. And so far, this merger doesn’t appear to have changed their tune. Comcast officials have responded to concerns that the merger will result in less choice and higher prices by labeling such issues “hysteria.” Gee, guys, thanks for listening!

Still, there is something different here, and it’s not just the usual “the consumer now has a voice” pablum. No, this time, Comcast and TWC will find themselves pleading the case for their merger in front of the Department of Justice, and in that arena the consumers’ voice should matter. It will take an awful lot of convincing to reassure the DOJ and the companies’ customer bases that this really is in their best interest.

How will Comcast and TWC go about doing that? I have no idea. But it doesn’t help that they’ve let their bad reputations fester for so many years, letting the complaints flourish through every digital channel available. And most of it is still somewhere on the Web, for any columnist -- or government regulator -- to see. If this deal gets shot down, both companies may well wish they’d woken up to how they are viewed a long time ago -- but by then, it will be way too late.

(Disclosure: I happily subscribe to Cablevision and have no skin in this game.)

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