Cutting the cable on Comcast

Some Clark County TV viewers are finding alternatives to the franchise service

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Readers share their views about choices they've made

The Comcast cable that delivers television to your home faces growing competition. The Internet and an ever-expanding array of choices have challenged cable’s dominant position.

This pitched battle of technologies is good news for consumers of movies, TV shows and sports.

Comcast, the sole franchise cable service in most of Clark County, may seem like a de facto monopoly with runaway price increases. Comcast rates go up starting this week. For subscribers of Comcast’s popular Digital Starter service, that represents a 4.7 percent increase, from $62.99 to $65.99 per month.

Some TV viewers, however, are learning ways to escape the cable company.

“A lot of people don’t realize the options out there,” said Melisa Otrugman, 32, who scratched cable TV for a mix of noncable alternatives. “There’s a lot of, ‘Oh well, I don’t care. I’m just going to pay it.’ There are so many options out there because the market is realizing people don’t want to pay so much for cable.”

Satellite services, primarily Dish Network and DirecTV, are long-standing alternatives to cable. But a new range of choices is emerging, in some cases blending the low technology of over-the-air broadcast with supplemental programming from online providers as well as Netflix and Redbox. Meanwhile, Clear and others offer alternatives to cable access for the Internet.

To those looking for alternatives, be forewarned: None of the choices match the wide spectrum offered by Comcast, especially at the high end of the price range. Sports fans, in particular, will be frustrated trying to find satisfactory television or Internet sources for viewing live games — which don’t lend themselves to viewing a day, or even a few hours, after they happen.

As things now stand, Comcast can deliver Internet access and telephone service for those willing to pay the price. And some of the alternatives require initial investments for services or equipment, creating a cost barrier for some consumers.

Nationally, Comcast has lost cable television customers in the face of relentlessly high unemployment and shrinking household income, yet it reported a mid-year increase in revenues for its video operations due to price increases. In Clark County, Comcast reported 83,511 cable television customers in December 2010, down from a peak of 85,256 a year earlier. Its market penetration stands at 50 percent, down from a peak of 56.4 percent in 2001.

It’s worth noting that a $1 per month fee Comcast collects from each customer provides almost $788,000 for a wide range of public, educational, and government channels that serve local agencies and offer a free-speech outlet to the community. And a 5 percent franchise fee levied on Comcast delivers some $3.3 million that’s divided almost evenly between the city and county to pay for basic government services.

Comcast’s competitors are constrained not by technology but by the complex market forces of the entertainment and sports industries. The recording industry gave them an example of what not to do: By turning its music products over to Apple for its iTunes Store, that industry lost control of its product and a significant portion of its profit. The stakes are huge: Sports and entertainment providers all are looking for the right balance of maximizing profits by increasing audience size, and accompanying advertising opportunities, as the rival content deliverers jockey for position.

The Columbian attempted to sort through the technologically diverse set of options to offer possible mix-and-match systems that work for some households. The list is far from complete, and it’s open to endless and ever-changing variations. And the summary makes no attempt to take into consideration issues of picture quality or other technical considerations. It includes full-price costs, not taking into account deep discounts offered to attract new customers.

If you choose a new approach, don’t get too settled in: changes comes faster than we can absorb them. Next on the horizon is likely to be a charged-up XBox Live, with a long list of TV and entertainment providers delivering content to your XBox 360. Comcast’s Xfinity on Demand is likely to be one of those choices.

Our hope is that the information will at least open a door to the possibilities available to those willing to invest some time and live with a little less in order to save some money. We welcome your comments and suggestions.