Your annual cable TV bill is a big household expense, easily rising above a thousand dollars. You may be paying hundreds more than you should. This guide will help you get the lowest price on the best cable TV plan for you and your family.
We’ll divide this guide into the following sections:
- Know Yourself: conduct an audit of your existing plan and your household’s TV-watching priorities. This gives you a clear picture of what matters – and what doesn’t.
- Do Your Homework: learn what deals the cable company’s competitors are offering and do a little secret shopping to find out what deals the cable company offers new subscribers. This gives you a baseline to begin your negotiations.
- Know The System: understand what motivates the cable company and its call center reps. A little ju-jitsu lets you leverage the cable company’s own policies to get a better deal.
- Be Prepared, Polite, And Persistent: Set aside several hours for the negotiations. Treat the call center rep with respect (they won’t see it coming). But don’t be a pushover.
- Making The Call: Only speak to reps who have the power to deal, use the system against itself, be prepared to walk, and you will get a better deal on your cable TV service.
- Follow Up Often: Make sure you got the deal you were promised and that it sticks.
- Repeat Periodically: Controlling cable costs is not a one-and-done event. You have to do this at least once a year.
It looks like a lot of work – and it is. But that effort will pay off by saving you money and getting you a better cable TV package.
Let’s get started!
The path to better cable TV begins at home. The first step in this process is to conduct a three-step audit. This will give you a framework to evaluate the deals pay TV providers offer.
Review Your Plan
You know you’re paying too much and getting too little. But what exactly are those charges for? Take a few minutes to review your cable bill so you know what a good deal doesn’t look like. Here are the things to look for:
- Rates: How much are you paying for basic cable and premium packages?
- Penalties: What termination fees could you owe on unexpired promotion offers?
- Fees: You will see three kinds of fees on your cable bill.
- Taxes and regulatory charges that the cable company passes on to its customers.
- Installation charges and set-top-box rentals cover expenses specific to your service.
- Programming fees like broadcast TV surcharges are now separate from the basic rate.
Review Your Priorities
Be honest with yourself. How many channels does your household really watch? Market research firm Nielsen found that on average adults watched less than 10% of the available channels.
Have a household discussion. Which channels does everyone actually watch? Which ones are nice to have? Which channels – especially premium channels – are never watched? These lists will make it much easier to spot good deals.
What Can You Risk?
We’ll see later on that the best way to get a better deal on your cable TV is by cancelling your subscription. Not actually cancelling – the cable rep won’t let you do that. Threatening to cancel triggers policies at the cable company that will get you a better deal. The strength of your hand depends on your willingness to follow through.
Do Your Homework
Your self-audit serves as a framework. It gives you a clear idea of where you are now and what your priorities will be for a better deal. The next step is to understand what deals you can get from the cable company’s competition.
Keep Your Junk Mail
Most people toss the promotional mail from DISH Network and AT&T U-verse. After all, they have cable so why should they care? They should. DISH spends enormous amounts telling you how overpriced your cable service is. Use that information to get a better deal.
Check Alternate Providers
Most people only have one choice for cable since the companies have built near-monopolies in local markets. You still have other options from companies that use different technologies to deliver pay-TV. We won’t get into the trade-offs between cable, fiber, and satellite here. The important thing is that you can leverage competitors’ offers against the cable company.
Telephone companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink offer TV services. They deliver it through a combination of fiber and DSL rather than with cable technology.
Satellite TV providers DISH Networks and DirecTV are another option – even if they aren’t. Your landlord or home owners’ association may not let residents have satellite dishes. You know that, but your cable company does not. You can still use the best satellite deals to argue for a better cable deal.
Another set of alternatives worth exploring are the OTT (over-the-top) services like Sling TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue. Although they offer fewer channels than the cable companies, they can still be used as effective bargaining chips when negotiating against your cable provider.
You also want to check the latest pricing from your cable company. You can get a rate card from many cable companies like Comcast Xfinity and Charter Spectrum. It will give you the list price for every service and bundle the company offers.
Go Incognito With Your Local Cable Company
The rate card won’t give you the latest promotions. Those only go to new customers, so you need to do a little secret shopping. If your cable company is your ISP, then check the cable company’s website from work or a local coffee shop.
You could also use a VPN service to mask your identity while price shopping. We recommend IPVanish as a complete privacy solution.
It may have been a while since you went through the cable subscription process. Here is a quick walk through of what Cox Communications has to offer in Southern California:
Promotions can change from market to market. Each provider will have its own set of bundles. The deals you see when you do your research will look completely different.
The “Starter” package includes a basic channels and a premium movie channel. It is also a backdoor way to get you to subscribe to their Internet service. And notice the twenty-four-month commitment you have to make.
The TV-only “Contour” package is more expensive. It has a shorter twelve-month commitment, but the devil is in the details…
The actual price of the service is $81.99. Plus, there’s a $20 one-time charge for doing the installation work yourself.
Drill down a little deeper and you see that the discount expires after twelve months. They count on you not noticing the rate rise a year from now.
Or reading the fine print.
You have to click someplace else to see the extra charges. Cox will charge you $4 per month to get the same TV signals you could get for free with an antenna. And they charge you between $2.60 and $6 per month for regional sports channels.
When you go into the extra charges, you’ll see that you have to pay at least $12.99 per month for DVR service.
That service is on top of the $8.50 per month for the hardware. They do give you the option of skipping the DVR and getting a CableCARD… for $1.99 per month.
Winter is almost over so do you want to pay $15.99 per month for HBO?
More packages let you get BBC America or more sports channels.
And don’t forget the extended warranty. Most people pay $120 a year for something they never use. Notice the final total with DVR service, hardware rental, HBO to watch Game of Thrones, an extra sports package, and the Complete Care. The $64.99 promotional rate is now $131.47 plus the local broadcast fee plus the regional sports network fee plus pass through charges.
Check The Comparison Sites
Websites like Wirefly display price comparisons. They link you to the cable company in exchange for affiliate fees. There is no guarantee that the comparison sites show cable companies’ best offers. Of course, that is true for everything on the web. This research gives you a starting point for your direct negotiations.
Know The System
Now that you know what you want and you know what kind of deals are out there, you need to know how the cable companies work. Then you can turn their policies to your advantage.
You Are Worth It
Cable companies spend hundreds of dollars to get new customers. They already have you, and won’t want to lose you. The math works in your favor.
That is particularly true for high-value customers – which doesn’t always mean people who spend a lot. Long-term customers are more valuable than recent customers. People who pay on time are more valuable than people who miss a few payments each year. If any of these apply to you, the cable company may be more willing to work a deal.
Reps Must Cut Deals
Cable reps have one job: “save” your subscription. They get paid, and punished, based on how well they do.
US Senator Claire McCaskill led an investigation of cable industry practices. It found commissions comprise up to 40% of cable reps’ compensation. The reps also get “progressive counseling” when they fail.
The Senate investigation also discovered a Time Warner Cable training document. It told its reps to “do the opposite of what the customer is calling for… if the customer wants to lower the bill, you’re going to try to avoid that, and perhaps even raise the bill!”
The call center reps train to ask you a lot of probing questions. They use your own answers to overcome your objections and make offers that will change your mind.
Those reps have a rate card listing all the promotions they can offer. But they have to lead with the least expensive offer before working down the list.
Knowing all this works to your advantage. No matter what the rep says, you know that the first offer is not the best. When they ask their probing questions, your answers can guide the reps to a deal that works best for you.
Be Prepared, Polite, And Persistent
Set aside at least three hours on a weekday morning. You will spend time on hold, but much less than during the peak lunch and after work hours.
Have your research spread out in front of you. Have a book or laptop so you can do something productive while on hold. You do not want to be frustrated when a person finally picks up.
Which leads into the next point: be polite. Smile when you talk. Instead of launching into a complaint, ask the rep how they are doing – and take interest in the answer.
A call center rep’s job sucks. They have to deal with nasty, irate customers who only want to yell at them. Having a pleasant person on the phone will be a surprise. It will shift the reps mentally in your favor.
Being polite does not mean being a pushover. Be persistent. You have done your homework, you know what you want, and you know what you don’t want. So stick to the plan while you negotiate the deal.
Making The Call
The first step is to bypass all the other reps and speak to the people who can make deals. The way you do that is by uttering the phrase the cable company fears the most: “I want to cancel my subscription”.
A first-line call center rep may try to talk you out of it, but don’t let that happen. Ask them if they have the power to cancel your account. When they say no, ask for someone who can.
Play The Long Game
Once you are speaking with the right person, you will want to get things over with. Don’t give in. That plays into their hands. Spend as much time as it takes to negotiate the better deal.
Remember that the rep gets evaluated in real time. Give them what they need to look good. Answer their probing questions. Telling the rep your priorities guides them towards a deal that works best for you.
Reject offers – especially the first one – that have little value. Be polite about it, but explain why the offer means nothing to you.
When the rep tries to upsell, counter with an alternative that makes sense for you. Let’s say you are into baseball. Reject a movie channel package, for example, and ask for a better break on the sports package. You get something you want: more baseball at a discount. The rep gets something they need: points for selling a premium package.
Reserve Your Power Card
Keep the conversation focused on channels and services until the end. That’s when you play your power card.
Ask what extra savings you get for a long-term commitment. A long-term customer is more valuable to the cable company. There is nothing wrong with a twelve or twenty-four-month contract as long as it is on your terms.
Be Prepared To Walk
If your ask is reasonable but the rep won’t work with you, then you have to be willing to cancel your subscription. But don’t worry, this is just another step in the negotiation. The Senate investigation found that all TV providers had customer recovery programs.
Follow Up Often
Don’t hang up without reviewing the final deal with the rep. Walk through each of the services, the rates, and any extra fees or penalties. Ask the rep when the changes will take effect. Make sure you write this down along with the rep’s name.
Check your account to make sure the new service has everything promised. If not, call the “cancellation” department again. You will speak with a different rep. Patiently, politely explain who you spoke with, what they promised, and what is missing. Let the new rep be a hero. If they refuse, then reopen the negotiation by politely asking to close your account.
Renegotiating your cable bill should be a regular part of your household finances. Schedule time to double-check your account status after any promotions expire. Make sure it hasn’t increased your rates. Check the junk mail for the latest deals. Every twelve months or so re-evaluate your cable service.
Chris Casper is a former tech industry product manager who escaped from California for New Mexico. Now he writes about science and tech while searching for the perfect green chile sauce.