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'Optimum' Deal On the 'Verizon'

Switching from one subscription TV operator to another feels a bit like refinancing a mortgage: A few phone calls, a bit of paperwork and some charges you didn’t expect that make the deal a little less sweet, but ultimately a bit more cash in your pocket each month.

It’s also a chance to study what the rival cable-telco-satellite providers in a given market are doing to recruit and retain customers.

Ever since FiOS entered our suburban New York market, consumers have been able to play one pay-TV provider against the other for an optimal deal. (We don't hear much from the satellite services here.) They’ve also benefited from better customer service—shorter windows for the infamous cable guy’s visit, more knowledgeable and pleasant phone reps.

But it appears the operators are drawing the line these days on price—even if it means risking more of the dreaded churn.

Some four years ago, FiOS, then new to our market, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse for the triple play and we broke from Cablevision. Almost exactly two years after we started with FiOS, a Cablevision rep knocked on our door, told us he knew our plum FiOS deal was winding down, and offered us a price for the triple play that came in at a little more than half of what we had been paying FiOS. He threw in an iPod Touch, movie passes and an offer to cover our penalty for breaking with FiOS.

He even got on my wife's good side by claiming to like the Red Sox.

Optimum, indeed--we went for it, of course. It was great to see News 12 again. Not much had changed in two years—still Janine Rose anchoring, Walt Fowler doing sports and Joe Rao with the weather--aside from a lower-third crawl that isn’t all that newsy, or local, and drives me nuts.

The FiOS calls came for weeks after that, urging us to reconsider. Too late, we said. Yet we kept the FiOS box--I believe it’s called the Optical Network Terminal--affixed to our basement wall, figuring we’d reconsider when our two year deal expired.

Which, of course, we did. Our monthly nut increased substantially after expiration. I called Cablevision to see if that was negotiable. I was told it wasn’t. I was put on with the supervisor, who told me the new monthly charge would not drop a nickel.

And no, she would not throw in a premium channel for that same price.

I told her I was leaving for FiOS and she wished me well. I was surprised: A few years ago, it felt like the cable company would do just about anything to keep you on board. But Cablevision seemed to have a very specific price in mind for me, and would not budge.

So I called FiOS. The rep first offered me a price that wasn’t much different from the triple play price I was thinking of leaving Cablevision for, so I asked him to go a little lower. I was thinking, like, 10 bucks, and it’s a deal—yet he knocked a good 40 bucks off the price, and I gladly took the deal.

And so, back, to Verizon. FiOS had us hooked up within days, its four hour window of installation shortened since we already had the terminal box in the basement. (Alas, a tech had to return a day later, as that box was beeping every 15 minutes due to a dead battery.)

We learned a tough lesson though--that FiOS had taken the notion of “basic cable"--the ad supported channels like TNT and MTV and ESPN--and divided them into different tiers. (I work at B&C, and hang out with those Multichannel guys all the time. How did I not know this? Is this the new norm?) The really affordable offer we’d gotten, unbeknownst to us, did not include many channels from what I had, for half of my life, considered basic cable. No Comedy Central. No IFC. No Fox News Channel or TCM.

When I called FiOS to point out that I was not, in fact, getting the basic cable suite I’d thought we’d agreed on, the rep was having none of it—saying I was remiss in not spelling out the cable channels I desired. After a bit of back and forth that was going nowhere, he likened it to me going to McDonald’s, not telling the burger guy/gal exactly what I want on my burger, then blaming them for producing a burger that did not match my expectations.

Needless to say, that went down as well as a week-old Big Mac.

But he too was not budging on price.

My family wanted the upgrade--it’s to Prime HD, up from Select HD--but I couldn’t give in to the guy with the Mickey D’s metaphor. So I waited a few days before calling back to sign up for the next highest tier.

It’s, of course, a bit more money each month, but still a bit cheaper than Cablevision.

My wife told me we're not switching again in two years.

We'll see about that.