Mergers changed the Internet landscape for MSOs during the year since the last Multichannel News review, and not always for the better.
A few sites have been left intact with links to the new parent companies until their information has been absorbed. Others-some very promising-have disappeared, leaving behind only redirects or, in the worst cases, no forwarding address.
And a few send out confusing signals, like Harron Communications Corp.'s www.harron.com, which was one of last year's most improved sites. A message on the front page explains that Harron was acquired by Adelphia Communications Corp. last October, offering a link to Adelphia's site but leaving the Harron information intact, including corporate plans for the future and press releases that are more than a year old. How is a subscriber to know which information to use and what is too dated?
The landscape left behind looks untouched in places and completely altered in others.
Some changes are subtle-so subtle that the evolution is only obvious by comparison with last year's screen grab. That's not necessarily bad. For sites like Cablevision Systems Corp.'s and Adelphia's that have found styles that work, content updates, touch-ups and added services give the consumer a chance to feel comfortable. Customer service becomes a contradiction in terms when a customer has to relearn the site from visit to visit. (Admittedly, it would be nice to see Adelphia pick up some of Harron's Web design and content.)
But some sites seriously need shakeups. In many cases, the look and feel is dated or the content is stale. Consistency works; being stagnant does not.
In that sense, the MSO Internet world seems to be divided into sites that want to be more than occasional stops when the cable isn't working and sites that are there so that annual reports or letterhead can boast trendy domain names.
Web sites that want constant consumer traffic must be dynamic and relevant. For MSOs, this means channel guides customized by ZIP code, previews of upcoming programs, online subscriptions, complete customer-service information and opportunities for feedback and/or customer-MSO interaction, technical support and complete investor-relations information. Updates on outages, community calendars, Internet tutorials and links and locators for upcoming service availability are other pluses.
This year's most-improved site award would go to Comcast Corp., which broke from the staid mold of years gone by and was transformed into a bold site with a serious change in mission. And AT & T Broadband emerged from its merger with Tele-Communications Inc. with an accessible, customer-service-oriented Web site.
What's ahead based on the trends from this year? More customized features and personalization, the expansion of online billing and sign-up, more interaction and, with any luck, more sophisticated improvements in the way sites look, feel and behave.
These aren't the only MSO sites on the Web, but they stand out for reasons of size, complexity, accomplishment or promise.
The following Web sites were rated on a scale of one to five with five areas in mind: style, usability, content, customer service and business information. The score given with each review represents an average of ratings in the five areas. The reviews were conducted on an integrated services digital network line (cable modems aren't available yet in the reviewer's area) using several computers, including an IBM Corp. "ThinkPad 600" with a Pentium II 266 processor, 96 megabytes of random-access memory and a 13-inch screen; and a Gateway Inc. desktop with a PII 450 processor, 128 MB of RAM and a 19-inch Sony Corp. of America monitor.
Adelphia Communications Corp. www.adelphia.net
By now, a user would expect more of Adelphia. Investors can find sufficient information. Potential customers can learn about services like "Adelphia Digital Cable" or read the "Customer Care" policy. A feedback form offers plenty of options from a list of topics, but suggestions to call anytime are unaccompanied by phone numbers.
Adelphia's "Power Link" Internet service comes with a technical-service area packed with help, information and a toll-free number. But the digital-cable page provides only the suggestion that those interested should call their local office.
One problem: If there's an online list of Adelphia properties, customer-service numbers and hours, or an image map, it's cleverly hidden. All of this contributes to lower grades for Adelphia.
AT & T Broadband www.cable.att.com
What used to be www.tci.com now quickly redirects to a sophisticated AT & T site with a vivid bright blue screen, a circle containing vivid icons in an animated graphics-interchange-format file that just misses being annoying and a reminder of the merger.
The front page offers several access points including a ZIP-code field for access to local services, links to AT & T Digital Cable or AT & T@Home, customer service and job opportunities. Each link opens a new window, in some cases to a different AT & T site. For instance, clicking on the jobs link takes you to jobs.attbis.com.
Stylistically, the bright blue carries over to the inside pages as the background for the left-hand navigation bar, while the various symbols for the animated graphic on the front page become the anchor decoration on the top left-hand.
The ZIP-code search is as useful as they come, offering the chance to get even more specific with a ZIP+4. AT & T Broadband could save savvy customers a step by making sure they know they can enter ZIP+4 in the field on the very first screen. Don't know the last four digits? Enter your street address, choose a lineup that matches or follow a link that opens a window to the U. S. Postal Service's ZIP+4 look-up.
Next stop: a page with a generic frame that offers "AT & T Cable Services in Your Area." (I kept checking to make sure I was in the right place; surely, AT & T Broadband can figure out a way to put the location on the page.)
AT & T Broadband uses the space inside the frame to pitch its digital cable and high-speed Internet services. In this case, following a link to an availability form for AT & T@Home leads to disappointment-not because the form doesn't work, but because the answer is no.
One can fill out a contact form with another nifty animation of a cable spewing power, but there's no indication of when the service might be available in this area and no explanation about the fiber-optic cable now being strung across the neighborhood. There are also no forms at all for ordering digital cable, which requires a call to the local office.
The channel lineup comes with the requisite links, although a link to program listings at www.tvguide.com isn't customized by ZIP code, requiring the subscriber to re-enter information.
Overall, customer service could be much better. A HyperText Markup Language contact form proves difficult to find on the first few tries, eventually turning up under "Questions & Answers" instead of having a more prominent location. While the local offices seem to be accessible only by phone, the corporate offices appear reachable only via the form.
On the other hand, the site is almost too tilted toward customer service, providing no information about ad sales and providing only a link to the corporate site in lieu of business or investor information.
Bend Cable Communications www.bendcable.com
This central Oregon MSO makes the most of the Internet by splitting itself in two: a full-service customer site at BendCable.com and a community site, "Around Town," at BendCable.net. Entry through BendCable.com starts with a billboard promoting digital cable and Road Runner. Click enter, and two mini-billboards pop up, one for each option.
Choosing BendCable.com leads to an elegant page based on a TV-screen metaphor. Unfortunately, it's more like a two-inch handheld than a wide screen, rendering some of the text nearly impossible to read.
The style for links varies from one announcement to the next and, in one of the oddest choices, reading an "important message" from general manager Paul Morton requires downloading a formatted text file when it could have easily been posted in HTML.
The actual home page proves that someone at Bend Cable knows how to use animation but doesn't know when to stop. Instead of a real navigation bar, the designer has produced a post-it-note-like item that slides in and out of site as the cursor moves over it. The handy maintenance alert scrolling in a mini-window interferes with using the hovering menu, or is it the other way around? Annoying doesn't come close to describing the situation.
Good intentions and neat technology don't always mesh, especially when the look and feel of the site obscures the mission. Bend Cable has most of the elements for a highly successful site, but it needs much more of a focus on usability and consistency to get there. In the meantime, visitors would be better off bookmarking the site map instead of the home page.
Cable One Inc. www.cableone.net/index.asp
CableOne.net continues to update its look by shortening the front page to one compact horizontal screen, softening the colors and reducing the clutter. The site provides easy access to key areas with a streamlined navigation bar on each of its main pages and a standard set of site links at the bottom of each page.
Clicking on locations leads to an image map of the states with Cable One systems. Careful organization allows you to hone in on the system you want fairly quickly despite the lack of a ZIP-code search.
Below are links to each state. Clicking on those links leads to the list of cities served within each state. Click on the city, and you get a template page with local office hours, full contact information-including the manager's name (and e-mail address, if available)-and your choice of text or graphical channel lineups.
Included among the links are local weather via The Weather Channel and customized listings via TV Guide. Unfortunately, a garish pay-per-view "billboard" doesn't lead to any description of what's on or how to get it. Each template has links to the feedback form, the home page and the locations page.
For some reason-possibly marketing-Cable One touts online sign-up for its Internet service as "new," even though it was offered last year. The site also carries the same line about making changes-"We've made many changes to the site, let us know what you think!"
The plus side is the link to a feedback form that can be directed to one of several departments and that can draw from a pull-down list of locations-a far more sophisticated form than that offered by AT & T Broadband.
Cable One loses points for an incredibly shallow list of five off-site links that doesn't appear to have grown since last year. The corporate information page doesn't mention the Washington Post Co., nor does it have a link to corporate info.
Still, the MSO gets points for an ad-sales area with links to CableOneMall.com, a service that puts local business on the Internet. So far, six systems have put up malls. But as nifty as this looks, you can't get there from the customer-service pages or from the front page of the CableOne site-only from the ad-sales front.
Meanwhile, only three local advertising offices are taking advantage of the ad-sales area, and one of those turns out to be a bad link. Cable One Fargo (N.D.) shows what an MSO can do by offering a rate card, ad-quote form and coverage information, but some of its areas have been "under construction" for months without any visible signs of improvement.
CableOne.net shows how a site can evolve by upgrading looks while adding value. It also epitomizes the mixture of promise and delivery found all too often at MSO sites.
Cablevision Systems Corp. www.cablevision.com
Sporting a slightly updated look and a fairly low-key Shockwave-enabled front page, cablevision.com continues to be among the leaders in MSO sites with continuously updated content, including a quasi-weekly running feature called "What's New Wednesdays" and regional editorials from Cablevision's News 12 networks that are added twice a week.
Customer service is thorough, ranging from a ZIP-code search for office locations to a form that lets subscribers who are moving set up disconnects and installations. The moving form comes with a special Internet offer of $9.95 for installation and the promise that each of the companies involved will contact the subscriber to make arrangements.
Two more forms are available for feedback: One is a customer-service form with options for service, sales or comments. The other covers non-cable-service issues ranging from cable piracy to Madison Square Garden.
Customers confused by the recent lineup changes can see a change grid and a current lineup. It might not ease the pain, but it should make the latest episode of Quantum Leap on Sci Fi Channel easier to find.
Interested in "Optimum" telephone from Cablevision? The site has lots of info about rates and plans. Want high-speed Internet access through "Optimum Online?" See corporate synergy at work as the site refers you to The Wiz to buy the modem and even provides a handy checklist to print out and bring to the store.
But a few glitches cost Cablevision its across-the-board "five" ratings of the past two years. Finding out about Optimum Online is a bit like visiting the Hotel California-there's no return ticket to the Cablevision home page. Also, the 1999 annual report was filed March 30, but it's not posted at the site. There is a link to Securities and Exchange Commission filings off-site, where the annual report can be found, as can an amendment to thereport.
Charter Communications Inc. www.charter.com
Last year's review said this site had plenty of room to grow. Since that time, Charter has grown to 6.2 million customers through one-dozen acquisitions, gone public with an initial public offering and devoted considerable resources to improving its Web presence.
With Microsoft Corp. cofounder Paul Allen as its wired chairman and broadband Internet as a mission, Charter can't afford to have a site that doesn't measure up.
Light years away from last year's version, this site has been beefed up in content and sleeked up in style. This model is a combination lobbying campaign against "forced" access, image campaign to brand Charter as a Paul Allen-led company, customer-service site and investor-relations hub. The design is nothing garish-just subtle blues and greens on a mostly white background.
Some changes that would make a difference: technical support; ZIP+4 searching to narrow down the channel lineups; links for networks in the channel lineups; updated community calendars with subscriber input; more direct links to customer-service contacts; and online sign-up for services. Sign-up "now" isn't really now if you have to call or e-mail as an intermediate step.
Nice touch: The contact form fills in city, state and ZIP code based on the search info.
Comcast Corp. www.comcast.com
Snazzy: Instead of the stodgy, outdated look of previous years, Comcast's corporate site finally matches the up-to-date image of its content services. The look is fresh and the message hits home: We've got something you want.
The side navigation is straightforward-"I want it!" takes you to immediate sign-up forms for digital cable and Comcast@Home; digital cable and cable modems lead to more details; and jobs@comcast links to a companywide search engine and details about the benefits of working for Comcast.
Links at the top of the page lead to corporate, the press room and other Comcast companies, while anyone looking for local info can plug a ZIP code right into a field in the upper-right corner. A pull-down menu at the bottom of every screen adds to the ease of navigation.
Previous versions of the Comcast site didn't even pretend to offer customer service. This one is close to having it all, including a printable version of the channel lineup and contact info with e-mail. A wish list would include office hours, directions, an online feedback form and an online service form.
Cox Communications Inc. www.cox.com
As organized as this front page is, and as much thought as has obviously gone into it, it screams clutter at the first, second and third glance. There are so many links to click and places to look-so much to offer that it's hard to focus. There's even an animated "Cable Guy" in the upper-right-hand corner urging visitors to "clickety-click" for great deals.
If all you want is local system information, enter a ZIP code in the box at the very top of the page. Don't be confused by the fields right below, which allow you to enter an account number and password to log in. Other fields lower on the page offer searches for service availability and sitewide information.
Cox's site emphasizes customer service, providing user guides, contact and lineup info for each system and an online feedback form customized by system. But the online ordering form came up blank on several tries.
One nice touch included in the site is direct account access from the top of the page.
How They Stack Up
|<p> <span class="small" id="d9e187-96-small">Operators</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e192-100-small">Style</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e197-104-small">Usability</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e202-108-small">Content</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e207-112-small">Customer Service</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e212-116-small">Business Info</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e217-120-small">Average</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e222-124-small">1999</span> </p>||<p> <span class="small" id="d9e227-128-small">1998</span> </p>|