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FCC’s Wheeler to Consumers: Contract Dispute TV Blackout? You’re On Your Own

Wheeler

Wheeler

The Federal Communications Commission has decided it won’t get too involved in the increasing number of contract renewal disputes between TV networks and cable TV providers, and has refused to issue new rules governing what represents “good faith negotiations” in disputes that take channels off the lineup.

“Based on the staff’s careful review of the record, it is clear that more rules in this area are not what we need at this point,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “It is hard to get more inclusive than to review the ‘totality of circumstances.’  To start picking and choosing, in part, could limit future inquiries.”

A growing number of disputes over the rising cost of video programming frustrate pay-TV customers who find strident messages about nasty programmers or greedy providers blocking their favorite channels after contract renewal talks fail. Cable operators, sensitive about cord-cutting, want to keep price hikes down. Wall Street and shareholders expect growing revenue from charging providers for access to programming, which has become a major revenue source for most. Wheeler wrote Congress had good intentions to put a stop to contract disputes that eventually affected the public:

Congress, in Section 325 of the Communications Act, sought to reduce the likelihood that TV viewers would face this roadblock. The law requires broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) to negotiate for retransmission consent in good faith. Congress gave the Commission the authority to keep an eye on these negotiations, and our rules include a two-part framework to determine whether broadcasters and MVPDs are negotiating in good faith.

  • First, the Commission has established a list of nine objective standards, the violation of which is considered a per se breach of the good faith negotiation obligation.
  • Second, even if the specific standards are met, the Commission may consider whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, a party failed to negotiate retransmission consent in good faith.

In the recent STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR), Congress expressed concern about the harm consumers suffer when negotiations fail and sought-after broadcast programming is blacked out on their pay TV service. STELAR directed the Commission to initiate a rulemaking to consider possible revisions to our “totality of the circumstances” test.

Everyone has a different opinion of what represents “good faith” and many of these disputes quickly get acrimonious. Or worse. Take the one-month-and-counting little hatefest between Tribune Media and DISH Network also known as Satan’s Mother-in-Law v. the Zika virus. Tribune blacked out DISH customers’ access to 42 local channels in 33 markets, including WGN Chicago, WPIX New York and KTLA Los Angeles back in June. Many are major network-affiliated over the air stations. The dispute, as usual, is over money. Tribune wants DISH to bundle WGN America, a low-rated basic cable network, with its Tribune-owned stations, as a condition for renewal.

dish dispute

WGN America has little to do with WGN-TV, the over-the-air independent former superstation based in Chicago. As of late 2014, WGN America runs a vastly different schedule of syndicated sitcoms, drama series and feature films, and some first-run original television series produced exclusively for the channel. Long gone are local, syndicated, or sports shows that a viewer in Chicago would see watching channel 9 over-the-air. As a result, viewership of WGN America is 20% less than the former WGN-TV, and dropping. Many of the shows on WGN America also turn up on other cable channels, making the network a questionable addition to the lineup.

WGN America, not your father's Channel 9 from Chicago.

WGN America, not your father’s Channel 9 from Chicago.

DISH obviously has no interest in WGN America, but Tribune’s negotiators told them they better get interested, because WGN America will come along for the ride, part of any renewal for the over-the-air stations Tribune owns.

DISH is in no hurry to negotiate over the summer months, when shows are repeats and folks are on vacation. Many expect that will change once football season nears. But the battle continues anyway.

A new low was reached a few weeks ago when a frustrated Rev. Jesse Jackson claimed in an open letter that DISH’s refusal to negotiate was racist, in part because the blackout affected the show Underground, chronicling the Underground Railroad system that helped slaves escape to the northern free states.

“Is DISH using the same kind of math with ratings that the old south employed when enacting laws that counted African-Americans as three-fifths of a man?” wrote Jackson in a letter released by his Rainbow Push Coalition. “For far too long African-Americans have been underrepresented and unfavorably portrayed on television, silencing the significant contributions they have made to this country. Underground is a crucial part of a brand-new day of diversity on television that sheds a bright light on the bravery, ingenuity and power of the African-American experience, and is being used as teachable moments in homes and history classes around the nation at a time when we need it most.”.

Jackson

Jackson

DISH avoided taking the bait, responding, “We are skeptical that Rev. Jackson is truly interested in finding a fair deal for DISH customers.”

The FCC isn’t apparently interested in putting a line in the water either, steering clear of the controversy and allowing programmers and networks to continue to work things out with each other while customers watch repeating barker channels claiming none of this is the fault of their provider.

Wheeler points out he is aware of the DISH/Tribune dispute, but isn’t exactly rushing to end it.

“I summoned both parties to Washington to negotiate in coordination with Commission staff,” Wheeler wrote. “When that step failed to produce an agreement or an extension, the Media Bureau issued comprehensive information requests to both parties to enable FCC staff to determine whether they were meeting their duty to negotiate in good faith; we are reviewing their responses as I write. If that review reveals a dereliction of duty on the part of one or both parties, I will not hesitate to recommend appropriate Commission action.”

To DISH viewers, that represents a “definite maybe.”

At the end of last month DISH decided it wasn’t “good faith” when the Tribune subsidiary operating WGN America started running ads calling DISH a “dishgusting” company. Too much? Apparently so for DISH’s lawyers who filed a lawsuit.

“In a last-ditch bid to force DISH to accept its terms, DISH is informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that Tower created and broadcast, via its channels, disparaging content regarding DISH, its services and its performance,” states the complaint. “The campaign launched by Tower with these commercials cast DISH in an extremely negative light — Tower claims that DISH has not acted in good faith, that its performance and services are the worst in the industry, and even that DISH is a ‘disgusting’ company.”

Apparently, DISH maintains a disparagement clause in its old contract with Tribune, designed to stop nasty exchanges like this. Tribune called the lawsuit frivolous and the FCC today effectively called it a day.

Some of America’s Largest Telecom Companies Are Overbilling You

bill errorAs part of its investigation of cable and satellite television companies, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found large discrepancies in how five of America’s largest cable and satellite companies—Charter Communications, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Dish—identify and correct overcharges caused by company billing errors.

The subcommittee released its report to coincide with today’s hearings on customer service and billing practices in the cable and satellite television industry. The Senate subcommittee focused its attention primarily on billing errors associated with rented set-top boxes and receivers, not programming packages or add-on services. The bipartisan report found satellite TV company Dish was probably the least prone to billing errors associated with satellite equipment and Time Warner Cable was the worst at identifying equipment billing discrepancies. Even when it did find instances of overbilling, the company refused to give customers automatic full refunds as a matter of “efficiency.”

That “efficiency” is expected to be very profitable for Time Warner Cable, which is likely to collect $1,919,844 from overbilling this year alone. Time Warner Cable estimates that, in 2015, it overbilled 40,193 Ohio customers a total of $430,393 and 4,232 Missouri customers a total of $44,152. Time Warner Cable also told the subcommittee that, during the first five months of 2016, it overbilled customers in Ohio for 11,049 pieces of equipment, totaling $108,221.

Charter Communications only did marginally better, mostly because it is a much smaller cable company. Charter estimates that it has overcharged approximately 5,897 Missouri customers a total of $494,000. Charter, along with Time Warner Cable, made no effort to trace equipment overcharges to their origin unless customers specifically asked them to and did not provide notice or refunds to customers.

Let’s review how the five companies compare:

Time Warner Cable

time-warner-cable-sucksTime Warner Cable is notorious for its “no refunds unless asked” policy, which often leaves customers uncompensated for service outages and other problems. That policy also extends to equipment-related billing errors. During the 6.5 year time period covered by the subcommittee investigation, Time Warner Cable never automatically refunded or credited customer for equipment overcharges discovered by the company. Instead, Time Warner’s “Revenue Assurance” team quietly identified and corrected billing errors without any notification or explanation to customers, which may explain why your Time Warner Cable bill can change even when you are locked in with a promotion.

The subcommittee discovered Time Warner Cable still relies on two entirely different billing systems. One, “Integrated Communications Operations Management System”, otherwise known as ICOMS, is especially troublesome to navigate at Time Warner because the company does not use standardized coding across the entire company. Placing an order for Internet service in the Northeast Division of Time Warner Cable is completely different from ordering the same product in a city like Kansas City or the west coast. Employees have complained about ICOMS for years, noting it can take up to 30 separate codes entered correctly in the system to add just one product, like High-Speed Internet. A simple data entry error can mess up an order and generate a billing error (or a lost order or service request that is never processed). But Time Warner Cable also relies on a different platform developed by CSG to manage some of its billing. Some of Time Warner Cable’s acquisitions, like Insight Communications, have operated under the Time Warner Cable brand for several years, but still use some of the billing platforms that were in place before Time Warner took over.

The subcommittee found strong evidence ICOMS is a big problem for Time Warner Cable. Attempts to audit the platform often crash, as it did in May of this year, preventing Time Warner Cable from identifying billing issues. At best, the company only aims for an 80% correction rate using its auditing tools.

One audit uncovered 18,000 customers in the Carolinas, Midwest, and Northeast that were being overbilled for modem and CableCARD equipment. Although Time Warner Cable was going to remove the erroneous charges going forward, it had no plans to automatically refund customers it identified as overcharged unless customers somehow realized that themselves and called in to request retroactive credit.

icoms error

Time Warner Cable erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

Time Warner Cable once erroneously billed one of its own employees for three Internet accounts.

The subcommittee found if an audit showed that a customer had not been billed for equipment or services that the customer had received, the company treats those inconsistencies as undercharges and adds the charge to the customer’s bill going forward. Time Warner Cable does not attempt to retroactively charge the customer for previous months where that customer was undercharged.

If the audit shows that a customer has been billed for equipment or services that he or she does not have, the story is more complicated. In some cases, customers agree to pay for equipment they do not actually have so that they can receive a cheaper package price—for example, a consumer who wants only Internet service might decide the cheapest option is a promotional package including both Internet and cable television. By participating in the promotion, the customer agrees to pay a monthly rental fee for a set-top box but may instruct the company not to provide a set-top box. In such a case, the customer’s billing records will show a charge for a set-top box, but the customer’s equipment records will show that he or she does not physically have a set-top box. In April 2016, for example, Time Warner Cable identified 49,132 pieces of equipment associated with overcharges; of those 37,653 (approximately 77 percent) were not “correctable” overcharges because they were associated with accounts participating in promotional offers.

Time Warner Cable does not attempt to trace billing errors to their origin. Instead, it only provides a partial credit for the month during which the error was discovered. The company will not notify you of the error or for how long it has been on your bill. Unless you call and demand full credit for the overbilling, you will not receive it.

The cable company defends its policy on the ground that it is “efficient.” Going through months of customer bills to identify overcharges would be costly and time consuming, the company argues. The company also claims that the customer is best positioned to notice an overcharge and bring it to Time Warner Cable’s attention.

After reviewing policies at several different companies, the subcommittee cast doubt on Time Warner’s assertions, noting other companies had no problems returning overbilled amounts to customers without a request to do so.

Charter Communications

Unfortunately for customers, not included on the list of companies willing and able to automatically refund overbilling is Charter Communications, which recently acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

therealcharterbundleThe subcommittee called Charter’s process of identifying and correct overbilling “substandard.”

According to Charter, prior to August 2015, the company did not run any systematic audits to reconcile its billing records with equipment records. Charter’s failure to perform regular audits means that overcharged customers could not receive a prospective correction of their bill unless they noticed the problem themselves and contacted Charter. Beginning in August 2015, however, Charter began taking steps to identify equipment overcharges now on its system. Charter will complete that process in June 2016.

Charter recently upgraded some of its systems to make sure that when an employee adds or deletes services and/or equipment, an update to the customer’s billing record occurs automatically. Charter has 21 employees working for its Billing Quality Assurance department. The employees randomly sample bills to check their accuracy and when Charter changes its bill format or presentation, the team is supposed to review the bills to make certain any billing changes do not introduce mass errors. The subcommittee found these auditing methods were unlikely to discover common “one-off” errors, such as when customers are overbilled for equipment or programming on their specific account.

Charter’s alternate methods of identifying discrepancies quickly become more convoluted and less useful after that.

For example, beginning in August 2015, Charter undertook what it called a “controller reconciliation,” in which the company began to reconcile its billing records with equipment data from its 35 “controllers” throughout the country. These “controllers” are designed to manage box authorizations and “from the office” service connection and disconnection so that a truck roll is unnecessary. These systems can also be useful in identifying unauthorized equipment installed at locations where they were never registered or if the box was authorized for channels a customer was not paying to receive. A controller reconciliation allowed Charter to identify anomalies like in Missouri, where almost 6,000 customers were being billed for set-top boxes they were not using.

The subcommittee was unhappy neither Time Warner Cable or Charter seem willing to use “brute manpower to identify how long a customer has been overcharged and automatically grant a refund or credit,” as well as do more to minimize equipment and programming mismatches with billing records.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast has bigger problems than overbilling.

Comcast

Comcast relies on a very similar auditing process in use at Time Warner Cable to identify billing discrepancies, except once Comcast finds one it identifies how long a customer was overcharged, notifies the customer and automatically credits the customer’s account. Starting late last year, Comcast began running audits weekly to improve billing accuracy. Comcast claims just a 0.3% error rate.

Comcast has more than 60 employees nationwide on the east and west coasts examining billing issues and, when needed, individually investigates each case to identify applicable refunds.

DirecTV

DirecTV doesn’t do regular audits, instead relying on a program called SAS Enterprise Miner to search for billing errors before bills are generated. It can also use the same tools to identify and correct past billing errors. The satellite provider goes as far back as necessary to correct past mistakes, and pointed to instances where credits of thousands of dollars were issued to affected customers. DirecTV’s Revenue Assurance department can also reach out and communicate with employees at all levels of the company to investigate billing issues and prevent future ones. What will change as a result of AT&T’s ownership of the company isn’t known.

Dish Network

dishDish was cited by the subcommittee report as having the billing system least likely to generate billing errors. Dish links its equipment and billing systems together, which means any change on one system automatically updates the other.

According to Dish, it is impossible to add or remove equipment without altering the customer’s billing records. Dish provides each customer with one free “receiver”—Dish’s term for the equivalent of a set-top box—and charges $7.00 to $15.00 per month for each additional receiver a customer has. That is the only equipment charge. Dish’s system will only send a television signal to receivers that have been “activated,” which happens as part of the installation process. Once a receiver has been activated, the customer’s billing information is automatically updated to reflect that addition. That system ensures that no receiver is added to a customer’s account unless it has been activated.

Dish customers return their receivers by mail. Dish provides a packaging label so that it can track the receiver once it has been mailed. When the receiver returns to the Dish warehouse, an employee scans the barcode on the receiver, which removes the receiver from the customer’s provisioning records and, in turn, from the customer’s bill.

Hearing: Customer Service and Billing Practices in the Cable and Satellite Television Industry

Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, June 23, 2016 10:00AM ET

(Video starts at 19:55) (2:18:54)

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

TV Station Eclipse: 150+ Stations Could Be Blacked Out Thursday for U-verse, Dish, DirecTV Customers

Phillip Dampier September 29, 2015 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, Dish Network Comments Off on TV Station Eclipse: 150+ Stations Could Be Blacked Out Thursday for U-verse, Dish, DirecTV Customers

Disputes over money may leave AT&T U-verse, Dish, and DirecTV customers staring at black screens on Thursday as three major station groups collectively representing more than 150 local over the air stations threaten to drop them if their respective carriage renewal deals are not signed.

  • AT&T U-verse customers would lose access to 42 Tribune Media stations in markets like Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, and New Orleans.
  • Media General’s 71 stations would be removed from DirecTV in cities like San Francisco, Buffalo, Austin, and Columbus, Ohio.
  • Tegna (formerly Gannett) is ready to pull the plug on its 51 stations on Dish Network in cities like Washington, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Buffalo, New Orleans, and Seattle.

wgn

Weary customers are now enduring dire warnings their favorite local stations are about to be removed, with suggestions greedy providers won’t pay a fair price for their programming. Providers counter the station owners often demand double the rate providers paid under the old contract. Providers then pass those price increases along to the same customers that also get upset when stations and networks are blocked during hardball negotiating sessions.

Customers are fed up watching different disputes play out several times a year, often resulting in the loss of programming they paid to receive.

“It’s bad enough that we are losing channels but the bill never goes down either,” noted Dish customer Allen Gayla Shaw on the satellite provider’s Facebook page.

“I’m tired of providers holding viewers hostage for your egos,” echoed Sandi Montgomery Cockroft.

FCC Intervenes to End Blackout of 129 Sinclair-Owned TV Stations on Dish Network

Phillip Dampier August 27, 2015 Consumer News, Dish Network, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on FCC Intervenes to End Blackout of 129 Sinclair-Owned TV Stations on Dish Network

Sinclair_Broadcast_Group_Logo.svgMore than five million Dish Network customers in 36 states can once again watch Sinclair-owned TV stations on the satellite service after the head of the Federal Communications Commission intervened to end the largest TV station blackout in U.S. history.

On Tuesday, Sinclair ordered its 129 stations to pull the plug on Dish subscribers after the satellite company failed to reach terms on extending its carriage agreement.

Dish accused Sinclair of “failing to negotiate in good faith” and noted the two companies had reached an agreement on a price to continue carrying the TV stations. What derailed the deal? Sinclair demanded Dish carry a new cable network focusing on high school and college sports it was planning to eventually launch. The TV station group owner also wanted to right to negotiate carriage contracts for another 23 stations Sinclair does not own, but operates under joint-sales agreements. Last March, the FCC prohibited such agreements but Sinclair believed its stations were grandfathered and not subject to the FCC’s ruling.

The large number of stations involved and the potential subscriber impact of dropping more than 100 stations all at once may have given Sinclair extra confidence to pull off a game of hardball. Dish lost 81,000 pay-TV customers in the second quarter of 2015, compared with a loss of 44,000 a year earlier. Dish is also no stranger to these kinds of disruptive disputes, having been involved in 32 of 74 major programming blackouts since 2013.

Earlier this month, Sinclair executives also told investors during an earnings call that the retransmission consent contracts with 75% of its distribution partners (cable, telephone and satellite companies) were up over the next year, giving Sinclair the chance to reset renewal rates higher to boost revenue.

Sinclair owned television stations (the numbers indicate the number of TV stations Sinclair owns and operates in a region)

Sinclair owned television stations (the numbers show the number of TV stations Sinclair owns and operates in a region.)

In a research note, BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield said Sinclair’s “greed” was likely to backfire on the company.

“Sinclair’s actions vis-à-vis Dish look to us like lighting a match in a dry brush field,” Greenfield wrote. “The government is looking for reasons to get more involved to help consumers. Sinclair may have finally given them a blatant enough excuse.”

dish logoGreenfield was right.

The dispute attracted the attention of FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler who requested “an emergency meeting” with the two companies yesterday to focus on the dispute. Wheeler had previously warned the FCC was taking a closer look at the growing number of station and network interruptions that anger paying customers. So far this year, there have been 145 station and network blackouts according to the American Television Alliance. Last year there were 107. In 2010, there were 12.

While most carriage disputes are about a disagreement over the fair value of a network’s programming, this high-profile battle already reached a settlement on that issue.

“At first blush, Sinclair’s actions sound crazy,” says Greenfield. He is convinced Sinclair has blatantly violated FCC rules by demanding to negotiate for stations it does not own. He also thinks demanding fees for a future cable network could run afoul of federal antitrust laws.

In this latest standoff, and under pressure from the FCC, Sinclair appears to have blinked first and programming was restored for Dish subscribers beginning late Wednesday, as an agreement between Sinclair and Dish was reached. The terms were not disclosed.

“On behalf of more than 5 million consumers nationwide, I am pleased Dish and Sinclair have agreed to end one of the largest blackouts in history and extend their negotiations,” Wheeler said before a final agreement was announced. “The FCC will remain vigilant. Use of the public airwaves is a public trust.”

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