What's the Box Buzz? Ask Mr. Hildenbrand

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It's unusual to hear of a cable customer-service representative who gets to know subscribers on a first-name basis, let alone the chief engineer of a major MSO.

But Cablevision Systems Corp. executive vice president of engineering and technology Wilt Hildenbrand has developed that kind of relationship with many subscribers — via electronic mail.

During an interview last week in his office here, he cited information gleaned from recent chats with subscribers "Dan, Dave and the other guys."

The bad news for Cablevision is that Hildenbrand got to know those names because the subscribers reported technical glitches in the iO: Interactive Optimum digital platform, which debuted in the MSO's Long Island, N.Y., home base in September.

But Hildenbrand sees the feedback as good news. He's used the information gained from a Yahoo! e-mail group frequented by iO subscribers to help craft fixes for most of the glitches.

Subscribers have told Hildenbrand about several annoying faults with the platform, including incidents in which the picture has broken apart, malfunctions in the video-on-demand feature, "JavaScript error" messages that pop up on customers' TVs and instances in which the box freezes up from time to time.

Hildenbrand typically crafts daily responses to several e-mail inquiries from subscribers, and not only during office hours. Two weekends ago, he sent out 15 e-mail messages — nine on Saturday and six on Sunday.

Though Hildenbrand said a few members of the e-mail group have figured out his job title, most don't seem to realize they're chatting with the head engineer.

"I don't lie to them, but I also don't beat anybody over the head with it," Hildenbrand said. "I'm just one of the guys using the Web site."

In one exchange, a subscriber — Doug, who also goes by the handle nerd1701, writes — "Wilt, [I] need to get some information here." He proceeds to ask Hildenbrand several questions, including whether the MSO is thinking about dropping the price of its digital package and when it will offer iO in New Jersey.

Another subscriber who says his digital signal is too strong, writes, "Wilt — should I wait a while before I call service?"

Hildenbrand's reply: "You're paying for the service. If it's ruining the value for you, call for service."

A few members of the e-mail group have taken potshots at Cablevision, including one subscriber, unhappy that Cablevision doesn't carry MSNBC and CNBC in the Bronx, who wrote, "You suck."

But for the most part, the group offers constructive criticism, and discourages bashers from submitting insulting remarks.

BEDROOM NOISES

The biggest problem Cablevision addressed with help from the e-mail group, Hildenbrand said, involved subscribers who received an overly strong signal from the headend. This caused everything from pixelation problems (causing the picture to break up) to the set-top actually freezing.

He said Cablevision resolved that issue by installing small "pads" — which are connected to the coaxial cable running from the box — on about 70 set-tops, including those running in The Wiz, the Cablevision-owned retail electronics chain.

Some subscribers have also complained about noise generated by the fans in Cablevision's Sony Corp. digital set-tops, designed to prevent the boxes from overheating. One person recently called Multichannel News
to say that co-workers who subscribed to iO planned to return their boxes because of an "annoying hum."

"It's been a big deal," Hildenbrand acknowledged. "It shows you how successful the product has been," he added, noting that many subscribers have ordered second set-tops for their bedrooms, where the noise is more of an issue.

Cablevision hopes Sony will reduce or eliminate the fan in future generations of the digital set-top, Hildenbrand said. The MSO is also studying whether it can address the problem in boxes already in the field by placing them in a "sleep mode" when they're not in use, he added.

The iO offering is more than digital TV. It also includes about 400 video-on-demand movies, games and other interactive-TV applications, as well as "Mag Rack" on-demand content supplied by Cablevision's Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. subsidiary.

Two new features — set-top enabled Internet telephony and personal video recording — will be added next year, Hildenbrand said. The MSO is looking at a PVR service that would use a sidecar box or store movies at the headend.

Cablevision is currently marketing iO to about 550,000 subscribers. Hildenbrand said The MSO is technically ready to offer the digital-cable service throughout its New York metropolitan cluster, but wanted to first gauge customer response and get feedback on the installation process.

It initially took Cablevision technicians "multiple hours" to install iO in each home, but that's been reduced to "just over an hour," including time spent training the customer on how to use the set-top, which takes about 40 minutes, Hildenbrand said.

The MSO has also been asking each new iO subscriber to fill out several forms to help it design a home-installation program, which will begin next year.

Hildenbrand wouldn't disclose how many iO subscribers Cablevision has picked up since the launch in September, but he said the MSO — which counts about 3 million basic subscribers — is signing up about 300 iO subscribers per day.

At that rate, Cablevision, which had projected that it would sign up 40,000 to 50,000 iO subscribers by the end of the year, would have picked up about 22,500 digital subscribers through last week.

Evidently, the company's chief engineer has gotten to know quite a few of them personally.

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