Comcast Takes Houston

Comcast officially lands in Houston, Texas — Space City — on Tuesday (June 19), when it takes over the former Time Warner Cable system.

It’s replacing a strongly identified, well entrenched operator. But it’s softening the blow by adding more than 20 new digital and high-definition channels, cutting the price of some services (though the drop in the digital-video recorder rate is only four cents) and eliminating a $5 fee for one of its movie tiers.

The new provider’s arrival shouldn’t come as a surprise to locals. For the last 30 days, consumers have received multiple-page mailers, bearing a familiar face: the former Time Warner Cable astronaut.

Time Warner introduced the image of a man in a full spacesuit eight months ago, and he has high unaided-recall numbers, said Todd Looney, vice president of marketing for the region. The astronaut is tech-savvy, and was always depicted as a customer, not a cable employee.

“He thought Time Warner’s products are great, but Comcast’s are even better,” Looney quipped.

The spaceman’s No. 1 tip: Keep breathing, change is good.

The humorous, 13-page booklet was sent to 750,000 basic video customers to help prepare them for change. (Executives declined to state how many Internet customers will undergo an address change from Time Warner’s RoadRunner to or how many digital phone customers will transition to Comcast Digital Phone).

Comcast stresses its local presence: 2,700 workers live and play in Houston. The booklet warns of possible temporary service interruptions, and asks for patience. But Looney thinks interruptions should be few.

Unlike other major system transitions — such as Time Warner’s Los Angeles system takeover — Houston will not undergo major channel realignment, Looney said. No major back-office billing conversion was needed, as Time Warner and Comcast both use CSG Systems software.

The changes are more along the line of revised verbiage. Time Warner’s standard cable becomes Comcast’s expanded basic; Time Warner’s digital value pack, plus HBO and Starz, is now Comcast’s digital preferred plus.

Price reductions include a $1 drop in digital basic, to $44.99; and the DVR dip, to $9.95. A former $5 movie tier has been “melted” into the digital line-up, executives said. The changes bring prices in line with Comcast’s national price points, and gives the new local owners a positive message, Looney said.

Comcast is adding channels including PBS Kids Sprout, MTV Tr3s, Logo, Indieplex, Retroplex, Flix, Gospel Music Channel, ImaginAsian TV, Fox Reality Channel, Africa Channel, NFL Network, Spanish and English versions of GolTV and ESPN Deportes.

New HD channels include versions of ESPN2, Versus/Golf Channel, Starz and Cinemax, as well as MHD from MTV Networks.

Comcast also will expand video-on-demand offerings to 9,000 hours, a three-fold increase over Time Warner Cable’s library, according to Looney.

Ads — including transition preparatory spots featuring regional senior vice president Tony Speller — were developed locally with the help of The Richards Group of Dallas, said Helen Wilson, director of marketing for Comcast Houston. They contain consistent local messaging but with the humor of Comcast’s national campaigns.

Phase two of a five-week media blitz begins Tuesday, promoting Comcast’s new features.

In one commercial, the astronaut, at a barbeque, invites the guys inside to ogle new video toys in the den. Meanwhile, fire and chaos breaks out in the yard. A child fighting the fire wets the patio door, and the words “It’s Comcastic” appear.

The Internet transition has been scheduled for July. Users will receive an e-mail with transition instructions and directions to an online help tool, and will have 30 days to migrate to the new address. The tool will also help them notify contacts of their new e-mail address.

Phone customers will also be migrated in late July and given assistance setting up new voice mail boxes with the new provider.

Comcast last week also announced several key executives in the Houston system under region senior vice president Tony Speller. Some came from other Comcast locations and some are shifting over from Time Warner Cable (see People & Calendar, page 35).