Originally published March 10, 2003

Buyer beware of satellite television offers

One of these days, I'm going to wake up and find myself mysteriously without phone service, Internet access or television programming after my repeated swipes at the big boys. But as long as I'm on a roll, I might as well keep going. This may be a bit off the beaten path, but file it in the "buyer beware" folder.

Last August, during dinnertime of course, we received a telephone solicitation from ATT Broadband, formerly Big Valley Cablevision/Continental Cable/Media One--now Comcast. The pitch was to move us to digital cable for the introductory rate of $39.95 for three months with the promise that our subsequent bills would be lower than our current plan. Considering that we were paying nearly $70 for two boxes and just one premium channel, this seemed like a good deal.

The installation went smoothly and we enjoyed the expanded channels, but when the first bill arrived it was again approximately $70. I challenged the charges with an ATT Broadband customer service representative who apologized profusely for the misrepresentation.  She acknowledged that the telephone solicitor didn't provide accurate pricing information and advised my only recourse was to complain in writing to their Denver office. In fact, after the "promotional" period, the bill was nearly $80.

Needless to say, I was peeved by the bait-and-switch and lack of available recompense. We vowed to seek alternatives and as if from above, DirecTV promotional flyers began to fall daily from the morning Record.  This time the proper questions were asked when exploring this new satellite service. Yes, the $39.95 was the accurate price and yes, the price for comparable service would be substantially less. We were assured we'd receive all local channels, a bevy favorite cable programming and the HBOs and Cinemax as a premium service for the introductory fee. 

One slight detail that was undisclosed, however, would not become obvious until some weeks after the dish was installed. At first I thought the Record TV guide had been misprinted until the same scheduling discrepancies appeared the following week. I was, in fact, still getting my old cable favorites -- but three hours earlier than before.  

I contacted X-Satellite, the DirecTV reseller, as if inquiring about a new system and was assured that all cable programming would be delivered in West coast time, according to my local guide. A follow-up call to DirecTV, confirmed the contrary, however. DirecTV satellite content is delivered as an East coast feed, meaning a program normally scheduled for 8 p.m. PST, actually airs at 5 p.m. PST. Who knew? 

If you're used to Biography on A&E at 8 p.m. PST, for example, you'd better set the VCR up for 5 p.m. because it actually airs three hours earlier in EST with DirecTV. With minor exception, most cable programming is aired three hours earlier than our local listings advertise. Of the seven premium HBO channels, only one is a West Coast feed. Local stations however are in local time.  

I questioned DirecTV why such differences weren't disclosed to new customers. The customer service rep smugly replied, "No one ever asked." He also disavowed responsibility for representations made by their reseller, X-Satellite. The situation can be mitigated, of course, by purchasing the DirecTV guide for an additional $5 a month, but you'll still get "Sex and the City" reruns each Friday night at 6 PM, rather than the scheduled 9 PM time slot. Sometimes it just feels like I'm punching cotton candy.

Cathi Schuler is an Assistant Professor for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of the Pacific. She also owns a business software training company, CeePrompt!  cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.  


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