Cable TV, the industry Americans love to hate, wants to beautify its public image.
Bruised by government regulation and fearful of competition, cable companies are sponsoring Little League teams, hiring more customer service workers, wiring schools for free service and taking other steps to warm the hearts of customers who, up to now, have had no other choices.
Next week the National Cable Television Association will launch the industry's most ambitious effort yet to alleviate its admitted unpopularity. In a well-publicized campaign, the participating cable systems will guarantee $20 refunds for missed repair calls or free installation to customers when they miss an appointment. Most Baltimore-area systems, including those serving Baltimore city and county, will participate.
Rich D'Amato, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade association, said the industry realizes it has to mend its ways to meet the competitive threat from direct broadcast satellite, which is already picking off cable customers, and telephone companies, which are investing billions in new systems equipped to offer video services.
"There's a recognition that we have a credibility gap in the area of customer service, and we have to close that if we're going to be considered a leader in telecommunications," said Mr. D'Amato, whose association represents companies serving 80 percent of the nation's cable subscribers. The program is part of an effort "to change the culture of the industry," he said.
It's a daunting task, for that deeply ingrained culture of monopoly has bred contempt among many customers.
"The cable industry is the only industry I've ever heard of that dealt with customers so badly that Congress passed a law saying you have to answer your phones," said August E. Grant, associate professor of mass communications at the University of Texas.
He was referring to the Cable Act of 1992, which imposed price regulation upon an industry that had so few friends on Capitol Hill that the bill became the only law enacted over a veto by then-President Bush. Cable executives continue to insist the law is unfair, but for many, it came as shock therapy, driving home the message that the industry had to change.
But changing the industry might be easier than changing the minds of Austin Amos and others who share his view of the cable industry.
Mr. Amos, the mayor of Perryville, is so disgusted with the town's cable provider that he'd like to replace it with another company. Dissatisfaction with State College, Pa.-based Tele-Media Inc. has led to vocal protests at town meetings in the Cecil County community.
"It seems the only time you get any service from them is just before the contract's about to be re-signed," said Mr. Amos.
The mayor was skeptical about the cable industry's program.
"I don't think $20 or free installation's going to help," he said. "They have to respond to customer complaints in a real manner (( other than, 'I'll see you when I see you,' " Mr. Amos said.
Donald Zagorski, a district manager for Tele-Media, disputed the mayor's charges of poor service, contending that his company's surveys showed that only 8 percent of the Perryville subscribers had called the company's office and that 95 percent of them reported satisfactory service.
Mr. Zagorski said the company, which is not an NCTA member, had not yet decided to take part in the program, but he indicated that Tele-Media was leaning against it.
"We don't want to create animosity between us and our subscribers," he said. "We don't want to create an opportunity for some people to make $20."
Closer to Baltimore, industry executives are more enthusiastic.
Steve Burch, regional vice president for Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., said his company is a staunch backer of the program, which he calls a "rallying flag" for the industry.
"We believe we deliver on the guarantees now, but we want people to know that," said Mr. Burch, whose company holds cable franchises in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.
Mr. Burch said Comcast recently hired 18 new telephone representatives for its White Marsh customer service center.
This summer, Mr. Burch said, the company expects to equip its installers with portable computers that will let them send and receive wireless messages and gain access to customer account records from anywhere in the region. This will let Comcast offer installation the same day a customer calls, he said.
In addition to the steps it has taken to improve service, Comcast has increased its sponsorship of civic and charitable activities -- everything from programs for the retarded to Little League teams. "That's something that years ago was not taking place," said David Nevins, a Comcast spokesman.