FCC Eyeing Cable-Bill Breakouts

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission appears to have a wary eye out for cable-operator efforts to show subscribers where their money is going on those oft-criticized bills.

That’s according to the FCC Media Bureau’s latest request for comment and data for its next video competition report.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has made it a point to say communications providers must deliver on their advertised promises. That missive has been aimed mostly at broadband speeds, but the FCC document suggests the idea could be extended to video service. (Cable operators have argued that fee breakouts serve as transparency.)

“Some MVPDs have added various video-related fees to monthly billing statements,” the Media Bureau said. “Such fees include, for instance, a broadcast fee to partially recoup retransmission-consent fees charged by local broadcast stations and a sports fee to defray the cost of sports programming.”

Retransmission-consent costs and the price of channels such as ESPN (OK, there is no other channel like ESPN in terms of pricing), are often cited by cable operators as big drivers of the cable pricing at which Wheeler likes to take aim.

But “some MVPDs may raise subscribers’ total monthly bills using these fees without raising the advertised package prices,” the FCC said.

That could run into transparency issues with the Wheeler mantra of delivering on promises. “We seek comment on the competitive strategy associated with adding video-related fees as opposed to raising monthly subscription prices,” said the commission, seeking to make its interest crystal-clear.

“Do video-related fees cause consumers to pay prices higher than some MVPDs advertised rate for video services?” the FCC asked. “How are such fees disclosed to consumers prior to becoming a customer or prior to the inclusion of a new fee on a consumer’s bill?”

Cable operators have until Sept. 21 to make their case.

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.