New channel lineup vexes TCI customers Cable: Changes leave TV viewers surfing for their favorite stations.

December 11, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach and Tamara Ikenberg | Chris Kaltenbach and Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

The folks at TCI cable say they did it for your own good -- even if you think otherwise.

They know a lot of their customers were caught off guard when Baltimore's cable TV lineup was shuffled Dec. 1 -- especially after TCI had announced it would happen Nov. 1. And they know that a lot of people are still having trouble finding their favorite programs.

"We've fielded a lot of phone calls, as you can imagine," says Marvin Wamble, a TCI spokesman. "We're trying to catch up as fast as we can."

Customer David Simons is annoyed, but he's not surprised. Simons, 36, says TCI never gave him a list of channels when he first got cable.

"I had to figure everything out on my own right off the bat. It's really frustrating to have a concept of where the channels are and have them change it again," says Simons, a Baltimore resident who works at Kinko's Copies. "Now I'm floundering around again."

Simons is put off by the offerings now available on Channels 2 through 13, which used to include not only network affiliates but such popular channels as Black Entertainment Television, ESPN and USA.

"That's a feeding ground for channel surfing; now it's a wasteland," he says. "You go where you normally would and end up at the Home Shopping Network. I don't need a cubic zirconia."

Wamble admitted the changes weren't strictly designed with customer convenience in mind. Putting all the basic channels together makes it easier to ensure subscribers don't receive additional channels without paying for them.

The move also gives lower numbers to several channels devoted to advertising for the system's pay-per-view offerings. While that could help ensure that more people see the ads, and thus take advantage of the more expensive cable offerings, Wamble said that wasn't a factor in the decision.

"I don't think that was a major consideration," Wamble says. "We can't tell right now if that's going to make a difference; it hasn't been there that long for us."

Wamble says the changes by TCI -- Baltimore's only cable provider -- are mainly to make the system more "user-friendly" by grouping similar channels together. All the sports channels, for instance, are grouped together at channels 62-65, the all-news channels at 69-77, the music channels at 55-59, and so on.

"Everyone is grouping their channels that way," says Wamble. "We had talked to some customers who didn't understand it, but once we explained it to them, they figured it out."

However, there are exceptions. Discovery Channel, part of the basic service, is not grouped with the other science-oriented channels.

That's because the first thing TCI did was take all the basic channels, those available to all subscribers, and put them at the beginning of the lineup (Channels 2-26). That includes not only the broadcast network channels -- ABC (WMAR, Channel 2), CBS (WJZ, Channel 13), NBC (WBAL, Channel 11), Fox (WBFF, Channel 4) and UPN (WNUV, Channel 14) -- but also MPT (Channel 22), Discovery (Channel 10), some Washington stations (WTTG, Channel 18; WHMM, Channel 19; WDCA, Channel 20; WETA, Channel 26) and local origination channels (5, 7, 8 and 21). Basic-cable users also get the electronic TV listings, which used to be at Channel 55 but have climbed all the way up to Channel 17.

Once the basic channels are dispensed with, next up are the pay-per-view channels (27-30), premium channels (31-38) and assorted channels (39-54). Within that last grouping, you get the educational channels (43-44), family-oriented channels (45-48) and old-movie channels (49-50).

But, looking a little deeper, the categories do not appear that simple. Action Pay-Per-View is stuck in the middle of the basic package, at Channel 9. FX, which would seem to fit in with the assorted channels, comes in at Channel 66. And there's a preview channel at 41 that's available to everyone.

No wonder customers are confused.

Julie Smith, 29, is unhappy with what she's finding when she goes to the former sites of her most-watched stations. And going to Channel 17's electronic guide only makes it more irritating for her.

"You go to the menu to find the channel, and you're missing half the show while you're waiting for it," says Smith, a Baltimore City resident who works for the downtown law firm of Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker. "It doesn't make any sense. It just confuses people."

Wamble says the logic of it all will come to viewers eventually, and it's true that not everyone is perplexed by the changes.

Suzanne Butcher, 47, says she was caught off-guard the first day. But aside from the initial confusion, she's not that bothered by the changes.

The city resident, who works for Verderaime & DuBois P.A. in downtown Baltimore, has found ways to remember the new locations of her favorite stations.

"The Family Channel was on 64, now it's on 46," she says. "It's backward."

And as for that Dec. 1 start-up date, the one that came a month late and arrived with little warning? Wamble admits TCI goofed there.

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