Once again, satellite TV providers do a better job at customer satisfaction than cable competitors, according to the annual J.D. Power and Associates study of residential TV service.

The annual "Residential Cable/Satellite TV Customer Satisfaction Study" - long viewed as a key source for bragging rights among competitors - showed satellite competitors continued to eat into cable's overall subscriber count. The study, based on responses from 8,668 pay TV customers, found 25 percent now subscribe to a satellite TV service.

And as in years past, they are happier customers, according to the study. Satellite providers were given an overall customer satisfaction rating of 723 points out of a possible 1,000, compared to 659 for digital cable and 621 for analog cable providers.

But that is an improvement for cable, which posted an average rating improvement of 3.1 percent compared to last year. Satellite providers raised their satisfaction numbers by only 1.6 percent.

Among the individual results, EchoStar Communications Corp. 's DISH Network service reclaimed the top spot, receiving top marks in billing, cost of service and offerings and promotions. DBS archrival DirecTV Inc. came in second, followed by WideOpenWest's WOW !, Cox Communications Inc., RCN Corp. and Bright House Networks. Cable heavyweights Time Warner Cable and Comcast Corp. came in just below the 664-point industry average, registering 656 and 633 points, respectively.

Satellite subscribers also pay less, on average. The study found the average monthly subscription for satellite service was $49.08, while cable service came in at $50.98.

2004 also marks a shift in what service element customers view as most important. Customer service contributed to 26 percent of the overall indexed score, compared to 10 percent averaged in the past three years.

The addition of voice service tied to a TV service bundle may be the reason for that jump, according to Steve Kirkeby, J.D. Power's senior director of telecommunications.

"The opportunity to purchase voice products from pay TV providers and vice versa from historical voice providers, has no doubt contributed to this dramatic increase in the importance of customer service," he noted, in a release. "Similar to the voice market counter-parts, dissatisfaction with levels of customer service will make consumers less satisfied overall, making them more susceptible to bundling and price promotions from competitors."

Nevertheless, bundling appears to be key. The study found 44 percent of cable subscribers want to combine their TV service with some other telecommunications service.