“Worst Company in America”: One contest Comcast would love to lose

Yesterday, it was down to the Final Four. This weekend, it's time to settle the championship, and Philadelphia has a home-town, um, favorite: Comcast.

Unfortunately, we’re not talking sports, or a victory to welcome. Comcast is a finalist this weekend in the Consumerist blog's contest for “Worst Company in America,” facing off against Ticketmaster, king of the annoying service fee.

It’s a somewhat tongue-in-cheek process, patterned on the NCAA’s March Madness. A month ago, 32  companies were nominated by visitors to Consumerist, the thorn-in-business’-side Web site owned by Consumers Union. At each stage, visitors pick the “winner” of a head-to-head matchup. You can see all the nominees here.

It’s easy to be a little skeptical about the contest's significance, especially when you consider some of the voting so far.

For instance, Comcast won its spot in the Final Four by defeating Apple., 4,779 to 3,583.

Apple, the company we all seemingly adore, is one of the Eight Worst Companies in America?

Yup, and Apple got to the Elite Eight by defeating none other than Microsoft. It whomped the Evil Empire, 10,654 to 5,639.

Is the Consumerist just a nest of contrarians? More on that in a moment. Comcast is our homie, so let’s consider some of the elements of its tourney success.

Factor 1 is simply its status as the nation’s largest cable-television company — i.e., the biggest target in an industry that Americans love to gripe about, often for good reasons such as rising prices and a lack of competition. It's hardly a wonder that Consumerist casts Comcast as a "perennial fav."

Factor 2 is that it’s trying to get bigger, via its pending acquisition of a majority stake in NBC Universal – which Consumerist, in its understated tone, labels the “harbinger of mergepocalypse doom.”

And then there’s customer service – something that Comcast has been working hard to improve but fighting an uphill battle, partly because of Factors 1 and 2 and the occasional problem of embarrassing viral videos. (Remember “A Comcast Technician Sleeping on my Couch”?)

Last year, to emphasize its commitment, Comcast introduced a revamped “Comcast Customer Guarantee,” which includes a 30-day money-back guarantee on all services, a $20 credit if a technician misses or shows up late to an appointment, and non-cash compensation – three months of a premium service – if a problem isn’t fixed on the first service call.

“When you look back, customer service has been somewhat a public issue for us,” acknowledges Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer. “We recognize that. That’s why we’ve made some of these investments.” Moyer says the results have been promising. In January, for instance, 94 percent of Comcast customers said their service tech arrived on time, up from 84 percent a year before.

I should note that as a Comcast customer, I have no service complaints. In my recent experience, tech support has been quick to answer the phone, helpful, and unfailingly polite. I’ve also appreciated access to weekend service calls. I have other gripes – last I checked, I still can’t get  SportsNet from the satellite companies – but service isn’t among them.

As for Consumerist, co-managing editor Ben Popken says the contest reflects the site’s desire to have fun as it lambastes companies that annoy or frustrate consumers.

“We report on the foibles of businesses, and give readers the tools to overcome them,” Popken says, “and we try to have a good sense of humor about it. We’re always good for a laugh.”

Here’s one more laugh: To get to the championship, Ticketmaster survived a seesaw battle with Bank of America, the bailed-out megabank that became a leading symbol of the financial collapse. Comcast only had to beat Cash4Gold – a niche company in a field heavy with leading  banks, computer companies, retailers, and cable providers.

Want to guess how Cash4Gold started its Cinderella run?

In Round 1, it defeated AIG – 2008's genuine harbinger of financiapocalypse. How soon we forget.