Consumer satisfaction with cable and satellite TV providers is at its highest since ratings began, but the industry ranked second to last among 18, and the nation's largest cable operator pulled its lowest rating ever in a widely watched annual customer service survey being released Tuesday.
Only airlines flew lower than cable and satellite TV, which tied with newspapers in the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which began tracking the industry in 2001.
Cable and satellite TV companies' average rating rose 3.2 percent from a year ago to a score of 64 for 2008.
Comcast, whose service so infuriated a Virginia grandmother she took a hammer to a local Comcast office, tied with struggling Charter Communications for last place among cable and satellite firms.
Topping the industry were smaller operators — in a category called "all others'' that included Cablevision Systems Corp. and RCN Corp. — with a grade of 69 out of a perfect 100.
Satellite TV providers DirecTV Group Inc. and Dish Network Corp. came in second and third with scores of 68 and 65, respectively. Though high for its industry, Dish's score was an all-time low for the company.
Fourth highest was Cox Communications Inc. with a score of 63, followed by Time Warner Cable Inc. at 59, up slightly from 2007, then Comcast and Charter. Comcast's score of 54 this year was 3.6 percent lower than its score of 56 in 2007.
The report surveyed about 20,000 people by phone from January to March. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points for individual companies and less than 1 percentage point for the industry as a whole.
Charter, controlled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has languished for years and was nearly delisted by Nasdaq recently. It's now under fire for a plan to track subscribers' Web use, and in January it mistakenly deleted the contents of 14,000 customer e-mail accounts.
Comcast rated 54 points out of 100. Rapid growth for the Philadelphia-based company, which has been buying smaller cable systems, may have added to its customer service woes, the report said.
"Comcast has come in and put a lot of money into technology, but not too much into customer service,'' said Claes Fornell, founder of the index. "The system is still not reliable enough and when customers call for customer assistance, it is not handled the way they would like it to be.''
Rick Germano, Comcast's senior vice president of national customer operations, said the cable provider isn't happy about its rating, but "we get it. We're listening.''
Comcast has conducted focus groups in 10 cities across the country in the past year, created a group to monitor and respond to bloggers' complaints, improved its internal processes and stepped up training of its customer service employees and technicians.
Comcast has hired 15,000 of these "front-line'' workers in the past 18 months, Germano said.
"We can be a lot better in delivering a high-quality customer experience. I get that,'' said Germano, a Comcast veteran who was named to his post seven months ago.
Comcast didn't fare much better in the rankings for landline phone companies, which Comcast and Cox are part because of their substantial presence in voice. Comcast is the nation's fourth largest phone company and Cox the seventh largest.
AT&T Inc. topped the phone ranking, followed by Cox. Comcast came in last, after Qwest Communications International Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Embarq Corp. and smaller operators.
The ratings for phone companies rose 4.3 percent to 73.
Phone companies' video services haven't grown enough to warrant them a listing in the cable and satellite group.