Cable takeover draws customer static

When Time Warner Cable brings its “Home to the Future” exhibit to Los Angeles, more than a few customers will be wondering what has happened to their cable operator of the present.

TWC has been swamped with complaints as it has converted former customers of Adelphia and Comcast into a massive base of 1.9 million customers in Southern California. The gripes have ranged from interrupted Internet service, altered channel lineups and confusion over new program packages. Many complaints have been prompted by extended waits customers endure when they call the cabler’s toll-free number for service.

The problems have been so great that a Beverly Hills attorney has filed a class-action suit. On laobserved.com, a popular Web site devoted to Angeleno politics and media, Steve Grace, the former head of a Los Angeles public affairs channel, chronicled his protracted adventure through a bureaucratic maze in order to resolve Internet and cable problems. And earlier this month, the city of Los Angeles sent a letter to the cable operator, warning that it would be in breach of its franchise agreement if it did not correct the customer service complaints.

The problems really surfaced in October, when Time Warner began realigning channels and shifting email accounts to its own system. Naturally, that created a great deal of confusion — particularly for TiVo customers trying to figure out how to align its service with the new cable lineup.

As part of the deal to acquire Adelphia last year, Time Warner and Comcast agreed to swap territories so each could have a been footprint in a major metropolitan area. So in Southern California, perhaps the highest-profile area outside of New York, Time Warner got not just the Adelphia systems, but some of Comcast’s as well.

In West Hollywood, after customers were sent packages promoting Time Warner’s new level of customer service, the conversion was postponed from November to Jan. 9 as issues were resolved.

“The transition has not been as smooth as we would have liked, or as they would have liked,” says Bob Abrahams, CATV supervisor for the city.

Attorney Alexander Rufus-Issacs was a bit more harsh. He called it a “meltdown.” He filed a class action suit in early December, charging that the company did not provide sufficient resources to ensure that customers’ service would not be affected during the transition. Although he could not provide details, he says that he’s been in settlement conferences with Time Warner reps.

Time Warner Cable spokeswoman Patti Rockenwagner says she could not comment on pending litigation, but adds the company faced a hugely complicated task of merging together what had been a patchwork of cable systems in the area. The company went from some 350,000 customers to 1.9 million, or from 15% of the market to 75% of the market, so it had to integrate everything from billing systems to Internet modems to emails.

“It was really like putting three separate unique companies together,” she says.

That apparently overwhelmed the system, but the company has added some 400 customer service agents since August and is continuing to hire. It’s also improving technology to boost customer service responses.

“The upshot is we are working very aggressively to make improvements and offer great service to our customers,” Rockenwagner says. “We liken this to a remodel, where you tear down what you have and then redesign it to make it better.”

In other words, a home of the present.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more