Cable Critics Take Fresh Aim at Fees

WASHINGTON — Veteran cable and service critics in the House started off the 115th Congress with a new shot across the bow of both Charter Communications and Comcast, aimed at break-outs of retransmission and sports network fees on cable bills.

Some pay TV companies have added line items to consumer bills to show how much they (providers) and their subscribers are paying for must-have sports networks and escalating broadcast-channel retransmission fees.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who were prominent inquisitors in last year’s Hill hearing that turned into something of a trip to the woodshed for MVPDs, sent letters to the top two operators seeking information on those fees, as well as promotional pricing.

Portman and McCaskill head up the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which held the hearing on cable fees and customer service last year in conjunction with a report it issued at the same.

Both the report and hearing were rough on pay TV companies, which pledged to do better.

McCaskill and Portman said they are pressing Charter and Comcast over “the misleading placement of fees on customers’ bills, and inadequate advertising disclosure for service promotions.” The lawmakers want more information on both.

Citing the hearing in the last Congress, the pair said in letters to the two companies that they thought using separate line items like the “broadcast TV surcharge” for retransmission fees or “regional sports-network fees” has “obscured” the real costs of programming when grouped with regulatory fee line items and charges.

The senators also said they had received insufficient answers as to how and whether operators promoted the non-promotional price of service to customers.

Charter said in a statement it “provides its customers with simple, easy to understand bills that inform customers what they are paying for. In addition, Charter doesn’t charge many additional fees common in the industry such as modem lease fees and early termination fees.” Charter would not comment on what line items it has or has not included on its bills or on whether and how that has changed since the hearing.

Comcast had no comment on the letter, but its regional sports fee and broadcast TV fee are listed separately in an “other charges and credits” section where it also lists its Universal Service Fund fee line item.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.