San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cable programming switch angers viewers

The Food Network has gone missing, and viewers are hungry for answers.

Since changing its basic cable package on Nov. 2, Costa Rica’s largest cable and Internet service provider, Amnet, is taking a public relations pounding from upset viewers.

In changing its programming, Amnet removed the highly popular Food Network and seven other channels, prompting a fury of calls, blogs and online postings from angry subscribers.

The Economy Ministry even got involved and is conducting an investigation into whether Amnet’s changes are fair to consumers.

Viewers are angry over two issues. First, some of their favorite channels are gone from the basic package, including Home and Garden, Fox News, Multipremier, Cinelatino, Speed, Eurochannel and the Food Network.

Second, to watch these popular channels, subscribers must buy a pricier digital package, purchase or rent a digital converter box, or own a digital-ready television.

“This is a pure case of bait and switch,” said Doug Smith, an Amnet subscriber in the western San José suburb of Escazú.

“They had a decent basic package with several good English-speaking channels. They hooked a lot of people, including North Americans, and then lo and behold, they pulled the package and created this new one,” Smith said. “Now no one is happy.”

So many viewers are upset that they created a page on the social networking site Facebook called “NO to the elimination of Amnet’s quality channels.”

The site has accumulated hundreds of comments, ranging from disapproval of channels in the new package to the poor quality of Spanish and English subtitles and dubbing.

“Amnet took away all the good channels and filled them with trash and soap operas that no one cares about!” said one Facebook poster, who called Amnet’s changes a “lack of respect for customers.”

Amnet sees things a little differently. According to Amnet Customer Service Manager Jorge Córdoba, the programming changes respond to what viewers want.

“Amnet conducted a market survey of its clients that sheds light on viewer preferences for certain channels,” Córdoba said. “This allows us to find the best way to satisfy our customers’ preferences and tastes.”

Amnet’s basic cable package, which costs $31 a month, still offers 97 channels, including several popular movie and news channels like HBO, Cinemax, CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN, and other popular channels like the Discovery Channel, ESPN and E! Network.

While the Food Network is no longer part of the basic package, other channels have taken its place, including Animax, VH1, Fox Sports Plus, HTV, IQ Channel, TL Novelas and Biography. The only channel no longer available is CNBC.

For $40 a month, viewers get 100 more channels than they did with the basic package, plus 50 music channels.

“This change is an effort to advance the process of digitalizing the channels,” Córdoba said. “Digital television is offered in several countries and will be in Costa Rica in the next few years.”

Córdoba’s comments echoed a forum held last year by several broadcast companies announcing the pending arrival of digital television (TT, Nov. 19, 2009).

Who’s Couch Are You On?

Despite Amnet’s efforts to reassure viewers, many remain unhappy with the new package’s content, which they say includes less news coverage and more soap operas, music videos and sitcoms.

“The news channels are all spread apart, but it seems like there is music and goofy sitcoms everywhere you look,” Smith said.

Some subscribers say they will switch to competing cable providers Sky and Cable Tica, but viewers have complained about programming from those companies too.

On Monday, Cable Tica sent a newsletter to subscribers explaining that the Food Network and Home and Garden channels would be removed from their basic cable package too. But Cable Tica plans to replace the popular cooking network with a different one called Gourmet. Cosmopolitan, a network targeting women, will replace Home and Garden.

Many Sky subscribers are equally frustrated. “The only U.S. news I can get other than CBS is Fox,” Kent Carthey said in an e-mail to The Tico Times. Carthey, a resident of the Playas del Coco area in the northwestern Guanacaste province, also complained about programming inconsistencies and poor customer service.

As digital and high-definition television goes global, Costa Rica appears poised to jump on board, albeit after viewers suffer a few growing pains.

Plus, it’s the only way to get the Food Network back.

Follow discussions on cable TV growing pains at The Tico Times’ Twitter and Facebook pages.

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