Comcast's Split-Personality Problem

I ran into a wall with yesterday's  posting on econo-minded  cable TV packages which  eliminate pricey  sports  channels from  ESPN.

 In talking about Comcast's role, I wrote that the jock-free  $30  Digital Economy package it offers in some communities is not available in "my Philly-hood" and even if it was, wouldn't be very user-friendly.  'Cause no pay-per-view or DVR functionality is available at that low. low price.

 Turns out I was wrong and semi-wrong on these  accounts. 

Digital Economy is available here. And  yes, you can make it interactive. But to turn on the  video recorder lurking inside the set-top box, a subscriber must  fork over an extra (and I believe excessive) $16.95 a month, bring the monthly bill (with taxes) to $50 plus. 

 So what were my sources of mis-information, an agitated  Comcast PR guy wanted to know. Only Comcast itself. The side the public can access.

 For starters, there was the  phone  sales rep  who, after much searching on her terminal, assured me that there was no such thing as  a Digital Economy package for  my South Philly  zip code and the cheapest TV  deal I qualified for was $44.95 a month.

 Not taking "no" for an answer, I then went  fishing for information at the Comcast Xfinity web site, which  likewise offered nothing about the $30  service, either on the home page or when I clicked on the tab to pull down programming  options.

 Only a   Google search of"Xfinity" and "Digital Economy"  finally brought  up some (but not much)  information about the  bargain   option and a bunch of  other channel bundles Comcast offers hither and yon. (Not every market gets every deal.)  Looking for morsels  in the fine print,  footnote #9 stated  that "added features" (which I took to mean pay-per-view and DVR access) aren't available until a subscriber bumps up to the $44.95 enhanced basic service.

So why the obfuscation?  Mixed messaging? 

 To this observer, it  boils down to Comcast being a very large and complex operation, with a lack of thorough communications between departments and more than its fair share of opposing   motivations at play.

On one shoulder of the mega-corp sits the "good child"  who wants the public persona of Comcast to appear socially responsible and  technically advanced, to win positive press, community good will and favorable actions by the federal government on small  matters  like how big and diversified the company can grow.

 On the other shoulder sits the ruthless  bean counter,  whose mantra is "What will this cost us!? We've got to increase profits. Our shareholders are depending on us!"

So while I don't doubt   it's true, as my Comcast  PR  contact assured me, that Digital Economy was in fact  "promoted" for "a couple weeks" before Christmas, no  commercial  for the offering   showed up on any prime time TV show I was watching. (Maybe because I  don't subscribe to Comcast?)  And today, judging by the company's website,  Digital Economy isn't  even a blip on the radar screen of the Comcast Xfinity marketing team. 

MORE TEETH GRINDERS: While I've got your eyes, let me also share a couple other, recent cases in point which  speak to the  lack of full disclosure, consistent information sharing and conflicted goals at the Comcast tower. 

 This past summer, company  engineers were  anxious to showcase  (and have me write about) their super spiffy new interactive  cable-  and web-mashing program guide and search engine. The thing is gorgeous. the operation magical, everything Google TV ought to  be.

But after a bit of probing of my Comcast demonstrators, it came out that the guide is currently available to only a couple hundred test customers in Georgia. And it  only works with  higher powered  cable boxes deployed  in the last  two years.  So to roll out  this wonderful product  nationwide - or even just to a  city or two - will cost the company billions in box replacements. Think  those mean bean counters are ever  gonna let that happen? Ask again in five or ten years.

Then there's the low-cost internet access service which Comcast introduced last year here and elsewhere. A worthy step in the pursuit  of computer literacy and internet access for all,  the $10 a month deal is available to any families with a student who qualifies for a free school lunch or other forms of public assistance.  Comcast executive v.p David L. Cohen himself came to the newspaper  office to  trumpet the cause.   When I asked, Cohen said the service operated at the same high  upload and download speeds that  regular customers buy for almost five times more. He also suggested  that  Comcast had arm-twisted  major computer companies to sell it state-of the-art Windows 7 desktop computers at ridiculously low prices, so Comcast could then resell these PCs  to its new  student subscribers for a mere $150.

 But Cohen apparently hadn't consulted with the  bean boys about all this. When I did a bit of independent research - again, talking to Comcast sales reps and searching the website - it turned out the  bargain  internet  service streams at a fraction of the bit rate  of Comcast's standard  price high speed. So there'll be no streaming of Web TV shows here, children. And as for  those super deal $150 computers  a student could buy? Turned out to be some  leftover (or "refurbished")  low cost and  underpowered netbooks which  the manufacturers were thrilled to be dumping on Comcast and its constituency.  

I want to be a Comcast supporter, really I do. But when you guys talk out of both sides of your mouth, you sure don't make it easy.