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Is TCI trying to make its subscribers angry?

The events of this week would certainly make it seem so.The cable company, which counts most of Utah's cable subscribers among its customers, upset a lot of those people by suddenly making unannounced changes in its lineup on Monday morning.

(TCI also raised its rates - again. But that's hardly surprising news. "Cable company raises rates" is news in the same way as "Sun rises in the east this morning.")

It's not that the changes the cable company made in the lineups on most of its systems are all that major. For the most part, they consisted of moving existing channels around.

But the fact that subscribers weren't notified was ridiculous. By Tuesday morning, TCI was running crawls across the bottom of the screen on some channels, telling viewers where to look for USA or Nickelodeon or whatever, apologizing for the inconvenience and promising that a new cable lineup would soon be coming in the mail.

Is this any way to run a business?

Well, it is when you're a monopoly, apparently. Most companies that act this badly toward their customers would suffer the consequences. But it's not like you can switch to a different cable company if you're unhappy with the one you've got.

(This does help explain the proliferation of 18-inch satellite dishes, although satellite TV has its own set of problems.)

If only the real TCI resembled that caring, feeling company we see in the cable operator's self-promotional advertising. If only TCI spent as much time and effort on really being that company in the commercials as it spends on producing the advertisements.

And - hey! - here's a novel idea. What if TCI had put some time and money in an effort to advertise its channel lineup changes before they were made?

The only channel to be out-and-out dropped in the shuffle is Chicago superstation WGN. Stations added to some (but not all) local TCI systems include Animal Planet and the Cartoon Network.

And whether you agree with that decision or not, the fact is that local TCI representatives are not telling customers the truth about why the changes were made.

Subscribers who call in have been told that the added channels were selected because of a subscriber survey. Whether such a survey actually took place is questionable - a TCI representative was unable to give any information about the results of the alleged survey.

And it strains credulity past the breaking point that Animal Planet - a station few people had even heard of before it showed up on the televisions on Monday - would rank higher than, say, the History Channel or the Sci-fi Channel or Comedy Central or ESPN2 or ESPNews or Turner Classic Movies.)

Here are the facts. Animal Planet and the Cartoon Network are both paying TCI a one-time fee of between $5 and $8 per subscriber to get in the channel lineup. That amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars nationally.

In addition, those two channels are not charging TCI license fees for up to three years.

(A license fee is a payment made by cable operators to cable programmers for the right to carry that programming.)

So while Animal Planet and the Cartoon Network are actually giving TCI money, WGN was continuing to charge license fees.

You decide whether it's a coincidence that Animal Planet is owned by Discovery Networks, which is owned by TCI. The Cartoon Network is owned by Time-Warner - and TCI is one of Time-Warner's largest stockholders.

(Isn't it funny how WGN - a superstation TCI has no ownership interest in - was dropped, while TBS - a superstation TCI does have ownership interest in - was not?)

All of which makes the fact that some TCI subscribers have been told that WGN was dropped because it was in danger of losing its sports packages - a blatant lie - all the more insulting.

What all of this forces us to remember once again is that TCI is a business. And that business is making money, not serving its customers or giving them what they want.

It's not that all the changes are bad. It's nice to see American Movie Classics have a channel of its own (at least on some local systems) instead of sharing a channel with C-SPAN. And both the Cartoon Network and (from early indications) Animal Planet are fine additions.

(Although you've got to wonder how it is that subscribers in Davis County got the Cartoon Network and subscribers in much of Salt Lake County did not.)

It's not so much what TCI did, but how.

Failing to notify customers before making the changes was bad enough. But then lying to customers about the reasons for those changes is unconscionable.

All the pretty advertising in the world won't make up for that.