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Altice End Runs Around Connecticut TV Station’s Blackout By Sending Customers to CBS All Access

“Of course you know this means war.”

Altice USA has found a way to use CBS’ All Access online streaming service against a Connecticut CBS affiliate that blacked out its signal for some Connecticut Cablevision customers.

Meredith-owned CBS affiliate WFSB-TV in Hartford has been off the Optimum television lineup in two dozen Connecticut towns as of 5pm Friday, Jan. 13 after negotiations between Iowa-based Meredith and Altice USA broke down over the price of renewing a retransmission consent contract that Altice claims is 800% more expensive than before.

That means Optimum customers in Litchfield County no longer have access to CBS programming. Or do they? Optimum’s website is redirecting affected customers to WFSB’s network — CBS — and offering a week’s free trial of CBS’ All Access, which allows viewers online access to all CBS programming on demand.

Optimum’s previously negotiated distribution deal with CBS for the All Access platform has been in place since the summer of 2015, which means CBS cannot pull the offer down from Altice’s website. That effectively means CBS is being used to undercut its own affiliate’s most important leverage — taking away popular programming until a provider finally capitulates and signs a renewal contract.

Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents small and independent cable companies, loves it.

“Local broadcasters cannibalized by their own network!” Polka tweeted.

Altice USA has promised investors it will hold the line on programming costs even if it means finding alternatives for customers. This seems to be an example at work.

Will CBS All Access weaken Meredith’s position on WFSB to force price concessions? The New Haven Register isn’t sure, reporting there are years of “bad blood” between Cablevision and Meredith over carriage contracts:

During the last retransmission agreement negotiations in 2014, Cablevision Systems called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Meredith Corp. was meeting public interest obligations that are an important component of all television station licenses. Cablevision also sued Meredith in Connecticut’s court system under the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The latest dispute has attracted the attention of both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators.

“I typically don’t get involved because it’s not for me to dictate the terms of a dispute between a cable company and a network,” Sen. Chris Murphy said in a statement issued Friday night. “But I haven’t been pleased with Altice’s commitment to Connecticut since it bought Cablevision.”

FierceCable reported the area’s congressional delegation isn’t happy with either company:

Connecticut’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, sent a letter addressed to both Meredith Corp. CEO Stephen Lacy and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei.

“While we respect the private negotiations being conducted by Optimum and WFSB and make no representations as to the merits of either side’s position, we believe that the current impasse does a disservice to Connecticut families and we urge you to negotiate in good faith to bring an end to this blackout,” the Senators wrote.

Altice, meanwhile, said in its own statement, “We have been negotiating in good faith for weeks and made multiple offers to Meredith even though their initial request was for more than 800% over what we currently pay.”

Frontier Refuses Refunds When Its TV Package Gets Slimmed Down By Contract Dispute

Phillip Dampier January 16, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Frontier 2 Comments

Frontier FiOS TV customers in the Seattle area are still paying the same price for a cable television package missing one of its most popular channels and the phone company won’t lower the bill.

Since the New Year began, a retransmission consent dispute between Frontier Communications and Sinclair Broadcast Group — the nation’s largest station group owner, has meant customers can no longer watch KOMO-TV (ABC) in Seattle on their Frontier FiOS lineup.

Daily Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein pondered if that should inspire more Washington residents to retaliate with some cord cutting of their own, especially after Frontier Communications delivered an unsympathetic response to the questions many cable customers ask when channels suddenly vanish from the lineup – why isn’t the bill going down?:

Not only is FiOS my source of TV at home, The Daily Herald has a Frontier hookup. For now, there will be no watching KOMO News or ABC on our newsroom TV.

I don’t watch “The Bachelor,” but that’s not the point. Shouldn’t all local affiliates of major commercial broadcast networks — particularly the traditional big three, ABC, CBS and NBC — be the minimum of what cable providers offer? I think so.

And if Frontier Communications offers less, shouldn’t monthly bills be reduced? I think so.

That’s not the way the business works, said Javier Mendoza, director of communications for Frontier Communications. Mendoza confirmed Tuesday that Frontier’s agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. has expired. Sinclair owns Seattle-based KOMO TV, the local ABC affiliate.

“FiOS occasionally changes its channel offerings. That’s covered in our customer service agreement,” Mendoza said. “Such programming package changes are part of normal business and no discounts are available.”

In other words, tough luck and no refunds. Watch something else.

Phillip Dampier: TV retransmission consent disputes will eventually cost both sides money and customers.

Frontier may be its own worst enemy deleting major network affiliates from the lineup, because for many subscribers, those are the channels that keep them subscribed to a bloated, overpriced cable television package that includes dozens of channels they will never watch. Once off the lineup, customers begin searching for alternatives, and something as simple as a good over-the-air antenna can restore free television channels that now cost many cable subscribers several dollars a month only because they travel across a wire or through a satellite dish.

Sinclair, for its part, isn’t terribly sympathetic to the consumer either, demanding an ever-increasing amount of compensation from cable and satellite providers to carry their local stations on the lineup.

Barry Faber, Sinclair’s executive vice president for distribution and network relations, says their asking price was perfectly reasonable for other providers (even though many promptly pass those fees on to consumers in the form of a ‘Broadcast TV Surcharge’). Faber implied Sinclair offered a ‘take it or leave it’ price and Frontier left it.

“They just decided they don’t want to pay that amount. That’s their decision,” Faber said. “It’s up to subscribers to decide what they want to do. If I were a subscriber, I’d think about leaving them.”

Unfortunately for Sinclair, if subscribers go back to using an antenna for television, they will effectively no longer be filling Sinclair’s bank account either, because watching over the air television is still free, at least until someone tries to charge viewers for that as well.

Charter Tells Tenn. Fire Victims to Dig Through Rubble to Find Their Cable Boxes Or Else

Phillip Dampier January 16, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News No Comments

(Photo courtesy of: Chattanooga Fire Dept.)

One month after country music legend Dolly Parton raised nearly $9 million dollars to support fire victims through her “Smoky Mountains Rise: A Benefit for the My People Fund” telethon, Gatlinburg, Tenn. homeowners report in contrast to that generosity, they are being harassed with huge cable bills and collections calls from Charter Communications.

Stephanie and Donald Isakson’s three-story vacation cabin at Chalet Village North is now a driveway leading to a still-standing chimney and a big pile of ashes and debris. Stephanie told Knoxville’s News-Sentinel she called “everyone that we could think of” to turn off now-useless services. She said firms such as DirecTV “couldn’t have been any nicer,” offering discounts that left DirecTV owing the Isaksons $1.09.

Charter/Spectrum was the lone exception.

“They sent us a bill for the next billing period after I called to cancel, and they say if we’re going to cancel, we owe the box or they’re going to charge us for the equipment,” Stephanie said. “We were told that if we dig through the rubble and found parts of the equipment, we could bring it in as proof. Otherwise, we couldn’t prove that the equipment was in the cabin at the time of the fire, and would be charged 100 percent for all Charter equipment.”

Charter, like many cable companies, usually demands reimbursement for lost/unreturned equipment, even after natural disasters like the wildland fire that hit the region Nov. 28. Companies tell customers to file a claim with their insurance carrier to assure reimbursement, and if a customer lacks coverage, they are usually personally responsible for the charges, which can easily exceed $300. Renters are usually the most exposed to unreturned equipment charges because many lack personal insurance coverage, mistakenly assuming the property owner’s insurance will cover a renter’s property damaged in a fire. Renters, like homeowners, must buy their own insurance policies to protect personal property. The good news is that renter’s insurance is usually affordable, often available for about $100 a year.

While Charter is preoccupied with its cable equipment, many affected homeowners remain in emotional distress and have larger priorities than picking through ashes looking for remnants of Charter’s cable modems and set-top boxes.

“There’s some people out there who don’t have anything left, and the last thing they need to worry about is Charter coming after them for cable boxes,” local resident Michael Luciano told the newspaper.

Luciano’s personal Christmas gift from Charter was a Dec. 25 cable bill for $626.89 — $207.30 in advance for TV and internet service from the first month of 2017, and $419.59 for his past-due balance, which he says includes $212.29 for the month of December, during which he had no service. Luciano is among several area residents whose homes survived the fire, but Charter’s infrastructure in the area did not. Large parts of the area, including Luciano’s home, remain without service to this day.

When customers refused to pay for service they did not receive, Charter responded with “harassing” automated and live collection calls up to eight times a day for some customers.

Charter’s behavior in the aftermath of the fire has been criticized in the area’s media but the company downplayed the reports as isolated incidents and a company spokesperson said the cable operator sympathizes with people affected by the fire, some of them Charter employees.

Patti Michel, director of communications for Charter Communications South Region, told the Knoxville daily it is not Charter policy to bill for service that cannot be provided or to charge for lost or damaged equipment in natural disasters. She urged customers to call 1-888-GET-CHARTER to talk about their problems with Charter.

“Callers may not have specified that their houses burned down [to a Charter representative],” offered Michel.

A post-fire set top box still largely intact.

In Pigeon Forge, Beau MacLellan said that calling Charter about the fire didn’t make any difference, and the result was repeated automated calls requesting the return of the company’s cable equipment, now incinerated.

The company has also been criticized for showing little sympathy for affected residents that occupy their cabins and homes only part-time during the year.

Alecia Hasselbeck, who lives in New Orleans and rents out a cabin two streets down from Luciano’s home, was told by Charter she had to make a 640-mile trip to her cabin in Tennessee to pick up her cable router and set-top boxes and drop them off in person at a nearby Charter office, even through her cabin was undamaged and service was on the verge of being restored within the next few days.

As has been so often the case when these types of stories appear in the media, an embarrassed provider quickly tries to make amends to soften the impact of bad publicity. Charter was no exception. Last week the News-Sentinel reported many of the customers quoted in an earlier story began receiving “mysterious checks” from Charter.

“Maybe it’s a way to say, ‘Sorry for asking you to dig ashes out of your burned-down home,'” Isakson speculated after receiving a “refund” check last week for $116.49. Other customers are also getting unexplained checks.

The Knoxville newspaper reported Kristi Buccholz, whose cabin near the Isaksons’ also burned, said she was “set off” when she received a collections letter from Spectrum after the fire. She gave a Charter manager a piece of her mind.

“I said, ‘Have you heard about the wildfires?'” she said, “And (the manager) said, ‘Yes I have.’ I said, ‘You’re harassing me and other people here about the equipment. … I would love to give you the 52-inch TV and the house it was attached to, but I can’t. I’m fine, but there are people who are not fine, and you are adding to the stress.”

Buccholz’s outstanding bill was canceled and last week she received a check for $75 with no explanation.

“I don’t know what it was for,” Buccholz said. “I just deposited it in the bank.”

Comcast: Still America’s Most Despised Company

Phillip Dampier January 16, 2017 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

Despite ten years of promises to do better, Comcast Corporation remains America’s most hated company, according to a new survey from 24/7 Wall St:

The internet service provider and subscription television service industries are not known for superior customer service. In fact, the two industries have the worst average scores in the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Still, Comcast has a significantly worse customer satisfaction score than either industry average.

The company’s internet services received the fourth worst score out of some 350 companies. In J.D. Power’s rating of major wireline services, only Time Warner Cable — recently subsumed by Charter — received as poor of an overall satisfaction score. In the same survey, Comcast received the worst scores in cost to consumer, performance, billing, and reliability. In 24/7 Wall St.’s annual customer satisfaction poll conducted in partnership with Zogby, nearly 55% of of respondents reported a negative experience with the company, the second worst of any corporation.

Customer complaint intensity remains very high for companies that have a history of increasing fees and charges, those that enjoy the benefits that come from a lack of competition, and at companies where there is a high likelihood of customer contact with customer service. The cable industry fits the bill on all three, and customers do not like what they see in Comcast.

For at least a decade, company executives have claimed to be dramatically improving customer service, most recently relying on Charlie Herrin, executive vice president of customer experience at Comcast. Comcast calls Herrin an in-house “consumer advocate.”

Herrin

“We know we still have work to do, but we’re excited about the progress we’re making,” Herrin tells customers on Comcast’s XFINITY Customer Experience website. “We’ve reached all-time highs across many of our key customer service areas. The number of customers who have had to call us is down 14 percent – which means your products are more reliable, your bill is easier to understand and our self-service platforms are making a difference. Our on-time arrival rate for technicians coming to your home has improved to over 97 percent.  Our success rate for solving your issue on the FIRST call is up by 7 percent, getting us closer to our goal of fixing it right the first time, every time. Our Digital Care team is also getting back to you faster, as our response time on social channels improved by 95 percent.”

Although Herrin seems convinced, customers are not. The Better Business Bureau’s Comcast file warns visitors the BBB receives so many complaints about the cable operator, it can only publish approximately one out of every twenty on its website. But that amounts to at 34,902 complaints published online in just the last three years. The majority relate to issues like Comcast’s usage caps, billing errors, mysterious fees, and poor service.

Customers may not appreciate Herrin’s metrics for improvement if they reported a service problem over an app, received an inaccurate (but easier to read) bill, or got a speed increase and a bill with penalty overlimit fees for using too much of their internet service.

Time Warner Cable customers hoping for improved service from new owner Charter Communications also appear to be out of luck. As Charter has grown in size, its already-mediocre customer satisfaction rating is apparently slipping again, now making it to 24/7 Wall Street’s Worst list at #12.

“Charter has one of the poorest reputations for customer service of any company in the subscription television service industry,” 24/7 Wall Street wrote. “It also scores below average in customer service compared to its competitors in the fixed line telephone industry and internet service industry.”

Two other telecom companies also scored very poorly – DISH Networks, also called out by its employees as an awful place to work, and Sprint, perpetually in the middle of a “service improvement” project that never seems to end, leaving many customers running out of patience.

Wall Street Analyst Craig Moffett Unhappy “Unwelcome” Phone Subsidies Are Back

Moffett

Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst specializing in telecommunications stocks, has lowered his opinion of T-Mobile after the wireless company successfully topped analyst estimates of subscriber growth, in part by giving customers a better deal than its competition.

Moffett is concerned T-Mobile’s subsidized holiday price cuts on the latest Apple iPhone and a new flat rate plan delighted customers but threatened profits.

“[…]Even as the wireless stocks were rising in November and December, handset subsidies were quietly making their unwelcome return,” said Moffett in a report to his clients. “T-Mobile’s new ‘All-In’ pricing plan opens yet another front in the battle over service plan pricing, leaving us incrementally more cautious about ARPU (average revenue per user) forecasts for all operators, not least T-Mobile itself.”

T-Mobile has ditched promotions for all of its usage capped data plans and is now advertising T-Mobile One, an “unlimited” (but throttled for very heavy users) data, text, and calls for an all-inclusive price of $40 per line. Customers can still buy a limited data plan, but T-Mobile’s website strongly de-emphasizes that option.

While T-Mobile added 1.2 million postpaid customers in the fourth quarter, exceeding estimates, Moffett isn’t happy with the prices those customers are paying because it may force other carriers to reduce their pricing as well. That hurts everyone… on Wall Street.

T-Mobile USA John Legere has become a perennial and profane thorn in the side of his competitors.

That kind of marketplace disruption the wireless industry could do without, so analysts on Wall Street are taking bets on what company will acquire T-Mobile and get things back to business as usual. Moffett believes all signs point to an unprecedented wave of deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and money-fueled industry consolidation under the incoming Trump Administration.

Sprint is a rumored favorite to acquire T-Mobile, but then so is Comcast, which may seek to enter the wireless space through a large acquisition. Companies repatriating billions in excess funds stashed in overseas banks at the special low tax rate President-Elect Trump is proposing may be what drives the next buyout frenzy.

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