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Cable Firm Gets Its Signals Crossed Over ‘Free’ Offer

It was only $7.50, but John’s voice betrayed his irritation. He had signed up for Cox Cable’s digital cable radio “free offer,” and now he was somewhat surprised to learn that Cox’s definition of free was, well, slightly different than his.

“I don’t want it anymore, and now they’re telling me it will cost $7.50 if I want it disconnected,” my friend said, using four-letter words to describe the firm.

From John’s perspective--we’ll call him John, because that’s his name--he had already been through enough frustration over the latest bold step in home entertainment, “cable for your stereo.”

Digital Cable Radio, available locally only through Cox, offers 19 music channels, sans commercials and babbling disc jockeys, for less than $10 a month--$9.95 to be exact.

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Lured by the offer of free installation and a free month of service advertised in a mailer, John, like many other San Diegans, decided to try it.

But, after a Cox Cable installer came out to hook him up, John realized that all the channels didn’t work. So he again called the friendly and perky Cox Cable customer service representative. He was told that there were some technical problems with the cable, and he would have to set aside another afternoon for them to send out another installer.

To make up for the inconvenience, the rep told John he would get an additional free month of service. Fair enough.

The second time out, the installer got the digital service working.

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I would be quick to chalk up John’s experience as isolated, except the same exact thing happened to me.

The second time the installer came to my home, he crawled under the house to replace cable and spent several minutes with his hands on his hips, staring at the receiver. Finally, he jiggled the cable behind the set until all the channels came in consistently.

“That ought to do it,” he said, hurriedly packing his gear.

After trying the service for a few weeks, I decided to keep it, and had said as much in this column. The sound quality, crisp and clean, the lack of commercials and the absence of blabbering “Jeff and Jer"-types were as refreshing as advertised.

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John, on the other hand, had decided that his life could be fulfilling without digital radio. And now he was irate at the prospect of having to pay for the free offer.

Two nights later, coincidentally, a Cox Cable solicitor called me at home to try to sell me digital radio. Feigning ignorance, I asked him about the offer.

“Absolutely free,” he said.

“What if I change my mind? Is there a disconnect fee?”

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“Not at all. Absolutely free,” he said.

I came clean and told him about John and his disconnect fee. Not true, he replied.

“Don’t talk to the person who answers the phone, insist on talking to the supervisor,” the friendly customer service representative said.

A few minutes later, his supervisor called. She wanted to assure me that there was no charge for disconnecting the service. Absolutely free, she said.

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By this time, I, too, was beginning to sour on the digital service. In the weeks since proclaiming my loyalty to it, I found I didn’t use it very often.

Somehow, the $10 a month--excuse me, $9.95--seemed like an exorbitant sum when it actually appeared on the bill. That’s $120 a year, $1,200 a decade.

So the next day, I called to have my digital radio service removed. I asked if there would be a charge.

“That will be $7.50,” the friendly customer service representative said.

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Armed with my prior conversations, I prepared to enter the role of righteous consumer battling the autocratic power.

“But I was told it would be free,” I said, slowly, indignantly, articulating each word. “And, by the way, I was also promised another free month after you guys messed up the installation.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the service rep stayed friendly. Normally Cox charges any time a representative goes out on a call, but I could return the box to Cox’s offices without charge, she said.

“But if you have had problems, then I would be glad to waive the pickup fee and I’ll make sure and put the free month credit on your next bill,” she said.

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Wait a minute. That’s all it took?

“We give our customer service representatives latitude to make adjustments,” Cox spokesman Art Reynolds said.

That’s helpful, as long as the customer is aware Cox is “flexible.” The next day, Reynolds called back. He had checked the digital radio training package for the customer service representatives, and it states clearly that customers should not be charged for pickups.

“One or more people didn’t get the message,” Reynolds said.

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Sure enough, John called Cox back and was told there would be no charge for pickup.

Apparently, sometimes it pays to be pushy.

The Channel 8 news team, which always seemed to avoid blatant network glad-handing, has been diving into the practice of teasing network shows with quasi-news stories lately, but Channel 10 is still the shameless master of the practice. Wednesday night it convened a panel of San Diegans to discuss Doogie Howser losing his virginity, and then led the 11 p.m. newscast with the witty and poignant segment. . . .

Channel 8 is scheduled to debut its 10 p.m. cable-only newscast on Cox Cable tonight. . . .

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In an attempt to raise a little extra money, KCBQ-FM (105.3) has been negotiating to lease its sub-carrier facility, a frequency that can be picked up only with the help of a special receiver. The proposed lessee: Radio Iran, which would broadcast Farsi language programming. . . .

Longtime KCBQ-FM employee Dino Matela has been promoted to program director. . . .

Channel 39’s “Ross/Hedgecock Report,” still looking for some sort of spark, will try studio audiences beginning next month.


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