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FCC May Make Comcast/Time Warner Merger Contingent on Carriage of More TV Channels

cable tvJust when you thought the cable television lineup could not possibly get any larger,  insiders at Comcast are anticipating one of the possible conditions that could be imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable is an agreement to carry more independently owned cable television channels.

One of the most vocal groups of consumers opposed to the merger deal have been viewers of independent Omaha, Neb.-based RFD-TV, which has landed carriage deals with Time Warner Cable but has been largely ignored by Comcast. For most of the summer, RFD-TV encouraged viewers to pelt the FCC with complaints about the merger deal, insisting that more networks not owned or operated by the top five media conglomerates get equal treatment on the Comcast cable dial. Thousands of viewers responded.

Comcast vice president David Cohen told Congress Comcast already carries more than 170 small or independent networks, although Comcast counts international networks distributed to customers at premium rates.

“It sounds wonderful. But when you peel back the onion . . . it’s really nothing at all,” Pat Gottsch, founder of RFD-TV told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Very few [independent] channels have full distribution, other than BBC World News and Al Jazeera.”

Independent networks have little leverage with major cable operators because they cannot tie carriage agreements to more popular mainstream cable networks. That is why little-known networks like Crime & Investigation Channel or the spinoffs of fX – fXX and fXM – have glided onto cable lineups while networks like RFD, The Tennis Channel, and BlueHighways TV have a much tougher time.

Time Warner Cable now widely carries RFD-TV, but often only on an added-cost mini-pay tier. In many Time Warner markets, RFD and Smithsonian TV replaced HDNet, also an added-cost network.

rfdtv_logoThe independent networks fear they will never become viable if they cannot reach the nearly one-third of the country’s cable television subscribers a combined Comcast and Time Warner Cable would serve. Others question whether they will be given fair consideration if their networks compete with an existing Comcast or Time Warner Cable-owned channel.

The Tennis Channel and Bloomberg have both tussled repeatedly with Comcast over carriage agreements and channel placement. The Tennis Channel took Comcast all the way to a federal appeals court, but lost their case. Cable companies have won recognition of their First Amendment rights to choose the channels on their systems.

In years past, cable operators cited limited channel capacity as the most frequent reason a network could not be added to the lineup. Comcast continues to claim they have limited channel space for television channels, but that has not stopped the cable company from launching dozens of little-watched networks they receive compensation to carry (home shopping, TBN and certain other religious networks) or are contractually obligated to carry (add-on sports and entertainment networks owned by Disney, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Fox, and even Comcast itself, through its Universal division).

garbageComcast’s claim it already carries nearly 180 independent networks drew scrutiny when the company released the list of networks. At least half were added-cost international or pornography networks — all sold at a higher cost. More than a dozen others were independent sports channels packed into a higher-cost sports tier. Most of the rest were regional networks given very limited exposure. BlueHighways TV, which features bluegrass music, is seen in only 210,000 Comcast homes, mostly in Tennessee. That is less than 1% of Comcast’s total subscriber base.

The only prominent and truly independent networks given wide carriage on Comcast include Home Shopping Network and QVC, which pay a commission to Comcast for every sale made to a Comcast customer, BBC World News, and the Catholic EWTN network.

Mitigating the problem of independent network carriage may push the FCC to the path of least resistance – making carriage of some of these networks a requirement in return for merger approval.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Comcast agreed to launch 10 independent networks as a condition for FCC approval of its buyout of NBCUniversal. That deal is what brought BBC World News to the Comcast lineup, along with a range of little-known networks on high channel numbers: ASPiRE, BabyFirst Americas, Revolt, and El Rey. BabyFirst is targeted to babies and toddlers from 0-3 years old, but is also enjoyed by recreational drug users who find the network’s use of bright colors in their short-form videos entertaining. ASPiRE’s programming has been described by its critics as “crap.”

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N.Y. Regulators Predict Some Time Warner Customers Will Pay More Than Double to Comcast

Staff at the New York regulator overseeing the state’s telecommunications companies have determined that some Time Warner Cable customers will see their largest rate increase in New York history — more than double their current rate — if Comcast is successful in its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.

At issue is Time Warner Cable’s heavily promoted ‘buy only what you need’ Every Day Low Price Internet service, which offers 2Mbps service for $14.99 a month.

Comcast has no plans to continue the discount offering, which means Internet customers will pay more than twice as much for Comcast’s cheapest Internet package available to all customers — Economy Plus (3Mbps), priced at $39.99 a month and only available at that price if you also subscribe to Comcast telephone or television service.

Time Warner Cable’s cheapest television package is priced at $8-20 a month. Comcast’s least-expensive TV package costs $17-20 a month.

“Time Warner’s lowest-priced offerings… represent choices for New York consumers,” Public Service Commission staff wrote in an Aug. 8 filing in the case, noted Albany’s Times-Union. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more.”

Comcast denies it will raise prices for New Yorkers or any other Time Warner Cable customer, but noted it needs to study the “significant competition that it faces” before making any decisions on prices. When Comcast discovers Verizon FiOS isn’t providing much of a competitive threat in areas unreached after Verizon stalled its expansion efforts and AT&T U-verse and other telco broadband offerings cannot keep up with cable broadband speeds, they might assume they don’t face that much competition after all.

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Time Warner Cable Can Raise Pricing on 2-Year Promotions; Customer Sees $15 Surprise Rate Hike

fine printTime Warner Cable customers believing they can “lock in” prices for up to two years with one of the company’s service promotions might be surprised to learn the fine print allows the cable company to adjust prices after just one year of service, as this reddit user just discovered:

My bill went up $15. They tell me it’s ok because I’m still on the same promotion, it just went up in price. That I’m still saving over full retail price so it’s ok. The phrase “it’s only $15″ was used by the service rep.

This is complete bulls***.

edit: I really wish I thought ahead to record the call. Now that I’m off the phone he offered me a one time $15 credit to make next month better. Like that changes anything.

How can the term two-year promotion be used if it’s only good for 1 year you ask? Well Time Warner’s answer is that it’s still the same promotion, it just goes up after a year.

edit again: The one time $15 just posted to my account. They don’t even call it a customer service adjustment or anything, they call it a “Save a Sub adjustment.” Not even trying to hide it.

09/06/2014 Save a Sub Adj -15.00

This and many other Time Warner Cable customers probably missed the fine print, which reveals pricing for the promotion can, and often does, adjust after the first 6-12 months. Comcast, the potential new owner of Time Warner Cable, also runs promotions the same way. Here are examples from both companies:

Time Warner Cablecomcast twc: Three-product offers valid for new residential and existing customers. After 12 months, regular rates apply. Offers expire 10/19/14. Standard TV for $39.99 available for 12 months; in months 13-24, price will go up to $44.99; after month 24, price will go to retail.

Comcast: After first 6 months, monthly service charge increases to $109.99 for months 7-12. After 12 months, or if any service is cancelled or downgraded, regular charges apply. After 6 months, the monthly charge for HBO is $15 for 12 months and thereafter, regular rates apply.

Some cable operators bill promotions by charging the customer the regular price for service and then apply a fixed promotional credit for the length of the promotional offer. If rates increase during the promotion, the customer will see the rate increase on their bill and will end up paying more because the service credit they receive does not change to offset the increase.

Why are they allowed to do this? Because cable companies like Time Warner Cable have gradually moved away from term-length service contracts, especially where they do not face a new competitor like U-verse or FiOS entering their service area for the first time. With both competitors well-established, cable operators have moved away from two-year “contracts” to two-year “promotions,” but customers often do not know the difference.

This customer can switch providers at any time without a penalty. Instead he called and complained and received a one-time service credit. Chances are if he calls and threatens to cancel service, the retention agent will put him back on the original promotion or one offering a similar promotional price. The key word is “cancel,” which works like nothing else to motivate representatives to keep your business.

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Charlotte Taxpayers, Tourists Will Pay $33.5 Million for Improvements to Time Warner Cable Arena

charlotte-time-warner-cable-arena

Time Warner Cable Arena – Charlotte, N.C.

Taxpayers and tourists in North Carolina will be on the hook for $33.5 million in improvements for the “outdated” 10-year old Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.

The Charlotte Hornets will spend the public’s money over the next ten years renovating restaurants and bathrooms and make several other improvements inside the stadium.

Time Warner Cable won the naming rights for the stadium by cutting a deal with the Hornets (then known as the Bobcats) to allow games to air on satellite and regional cable sports networks, especially Fox Sports Net South. The stadium is largely the financial responsibility of Charlotte-area taxpayers, but a wealthy basketball team and the area’s largest cable operator take most of the credit.

The city is contractually obligated to spend taxpayer dollars on renovations and city officials took credit for reducing the original request for $50 million down to $33.5 million. Deal critics contend taxpayers are footing the bill while the NBA team enjoys a free ride.

The city signed an agreement in 2005 that includes language compelling the city to be concerned with the image of the team and its sponsors. Specifically, the city agreed to maintain the arena as among the NBA’s “most modern” stadiums. Just a decade after opening, the Hornets contend the stadium no longer meets that obligation. Now taxpayers and tourists will pony up millions from a hotel/motel occupancy tax and a car rental tax to cover renovations, including those for tony, corporate-reserved hospitality suites.

Some city council members claimed to feel trapped into voting for the deal, which was approved in a 9-2 vote. The council’s two Republicans voted no.

“If we break a contract, who will believe our word?” at-large council member Claire Fallon, a Democrat, told the Charlotte Observer. “Who will believe us? I have to vote for it.”

But Republican councilman Ed Driggs believes the city has signed a sucker’s deal.

“Many don’t believe public money should be used to subsidize a for-profit business,” Driggs said. “How do we rationalize the terms of this? We pay all capital costs … and receive no proceeds. What kind of partnership is this?”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WBTV Charlotte Charlotte City Council votes to upgrade TWC arena 9-8-14.mp4

Eyebrows were raised when several council members, including the mayor pro tem, voted in favor of the Time Warner Cable Arena deal but against a public works project potentially financed by the federal government to expand the city’s Gold Line streetcar public transit system. WBTV in Charlotte reports. (2:31)

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NY Post: Imposing Conditions on Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger Would Be Useless

comcast cartoonIf regulators believe they can turn Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s mega-merger into a consumer-friendly deal in the public interest, they are ignoring history.

No matter what conditions regulators place on Comcast to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable, they will be toothless, television industry insiders told the New York Post.

Insiders suggest the Federal Communications Commission has been largely impotent enforcing conditions it required in earlier merger deals, including those Comcast promised to fulfill in its earlier merger with NBC Universal.

Among Comcast’s broken promises cited by The Post:

  • Comcast failed to live up to its promise to market its low-cost broadband service, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), an outspoken critic of the NBCU deal, told the FCC earlier this year;
  • Comcast paid a fine for not marketing A standalone $50 broadband service widely enough;
  • The giant cable provider’s hollow commitment to Net Neutrality didn’t stop it from excluding certain XFINITY video content from its data caps;
  • They discriminate against non-Comcast owned cable channels, especially those that compete with network Comcast owns or controls. Examples include The Tennis Channel and Bloomberg TV.

Industry insiders claim the larger Comcast gets, the more the company spends on clever lawyering and lobbying to keep itself out of legal hot water with Congress and regulators. That has begun to worry programmers like Discovery Communications, who filed objections to the merger deal.

Discovery officials warned the FCC Comcast’s takeover of Time Warner Cable would deliver an NSA-like treasure trove of viewer data to the nation’s biggest cable company. Comcast already monitors its customers’ viewing habits with tracking software installed inside set-top boxes that monitors what customers are watching at any given time. Comcast has refused to share that data with outsiders, and uses it primarily to pitch potential advertisers.

Comcast’s size already gives the company unprecedented power over cable programming rates during negotiations. Making the company even larger worries Discovery, which expressed concern that:

  • Comcast’s use of its bigger muscle to impose prices, terms and conditions that are overly favorable (for instance, preventing programmers from selling over-the-top rights or refusing to give competitors to its own services wide distribution);
  • The possibility that the cable giant could impose broader “most favored nation” clauses in agreements;
  • That Comcast could exercise control over national and local ad sales markets to the detriment of programers who also compete there.
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Time Warner Cable Executives Getting Huge Retention Bonuses; Layoffs Likely at the Bottom

Phillip Dampier September 8, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable No Comments
Money for some

Money for some

Time Warner Cable will pay $416 million in retention bonuses to the company’s top and middle management to entice them to stay with the cable company as its merger deal with Comcast is scrutinized by regulators.

The bulk of the bonuses will be paid to the company’s top executives in New York, but an additional 1,800 middle management employees would also receive twice their regularly scheduled annual equity award to compensate for canceled awards in 2015 and 2016. About 15,000 rank and file employees eligible to participate in Time Warner’s supplemental bonus program will receive a much smaller bonus — averaging less than $70 per employee.

While upper level management will gorge on cash and stock, middle management will receive stock only. Rank and file employees will receive a token payout amounting to 50 percent of their target bonus for 2014. Recipients may want to save the money. As part of Comcast’s plans to realize cost savings from the merger, many employees of Time Warner Cable’s call centers and technical staff may not have a future paycheck at all if the merger is approved. Comcast relies heavily on existing offshore call centers for customer service and subcontracts a significant percentage of engineering and service call work to third-party subcontractors.

Among the top recipients of the largesse:

  • Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, who will receive a golden parachute package worth $81.8 million in cash, restricted stock and stock options. Because his compensation package is so large, Time Warner Cable has also agreed to pay an extra $300,000 to allow Marcus to hire his own financial planning firm to manage the enormous sums involved;
  • The other top five executives of Time Warner Cable in New York will share more than $136 million in golden parachute compensation. They will have to figure out how to spend the money on their own.
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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Love for Comcast’s Merger Fueled By $100,000+ in Contributions

Emanuel

Emanuel

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been prominently cited by Comcast as an example of a U.S. mayor that has the insight to support the company’s $45 billion buyout of Time Warner Cable.

But Comcast also had the insight to avoid mentioning it had paid Emanuel and a political slush fund controlled by him more than $100,000 before Emanuel took pen to paper in support of the merger.

The International Business Times notes the mayor of the Windy City has deposited giant campaign contributions from Comcast and its top executives for years, including two signed by the author of Comcast’s press release thanking Emanuel for his support himself — executive vice president David Cohen. In addition to a $5,000 personal donation to Emanuel, Cohen also signed a check for $10,000 payable to the notorious Chicago Committee, a political slush fund Emanuel controls and uses to keep other local politicians in line with his agenda.

Since Emanuel first ran for mayor in 2010, Comcast and its executives have spent $50,000 on his campaign. When Emanuel was a congressman, Comcast was one of his top donors — spending $46,000 total from 2003 until 2o08. Other executives gave another $25,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that Emanuel chaired at the time.

With that kind of generosity, Emanuel had no trouble signing one of Comcast’s “template” letters in support of the merger, telling the FCC it was great for Chicago and would enhance Comcast’s “generous presence” in the area. While generous to Emanuel and other politicians, Comcast has pounded Chicago residents with relentless rate increases and perennially receives dismal customer approval ratings from locals.

Although Emanuel’s letter told the FCC the merger would not reduce choice, elevate prices, or otherwise harm consumers, piles of Comcast’s cash may have obscured Emanuel’s vision of what ordinary Comcast customers endure. WLS-TV in Chicago reports Comcast’s customer service borders on “abusive.” (1:38)

 

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Comcast-TWC Merger Now Issue in N.Y. Governor’s Race: Secret Meetings, New Questions

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Does N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo support or reject the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and why has an administration official been meeting behind closed doors with the companies involved?

If the merger is successful, more than 95 percent of upstate New York will be served by a single cable operator – Comcast, with little chance Verizon will mount a major challenge for video, broadband, and phone service customers outside of the areas where FiOS fiber upgrades have been announced. Although the Cuomo Administration promised an in-depth investigation into the merger, the governor has kept his own views close to the vest and has not publicly supported or opposed the transaction. But an administration official has met privately with executives of both cable companies and state regulators behind closed doors according to a new report.

According to public schedules obtained by Capital, Comcast representatives met at least three times in August with PSC members or staff in what one former commissioner called unusual circumstances.

James Larocca, a N.Y. PSC commissioner from 2008-2013, said it is not typical for officials from the governor’s office to meet with state regulators and cable executives in the same closed-door meeting.

“I did not meet with the second floor on pending matters and I’m not aware that other commissioners ever did,” Larocca said.

It is not unusual for companies with business before the Commission to meet with its staff or commissioners in ex parte conversations to set the parameters of hearings, filings, and other regulatory proceedings. All such meetings appear to have been properly disclosed by the PSC staff and the companies involved. But the fact some were held behind closed doors with a Cuomo Administration official and without public disclosure of the subjects discussed bothers some.

corporate-welfare-piggy-bankSusan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said what was discussed behind closed doors should be disclosed so the public can see what top state officials are saying to the cable executives.

“There are questions as to whether the PSC is a strong enough advocate for the people or the industry,” Lerner told Capital. “The agency has lost sight of its initial mission, which is to serve the public in regulating these absolutely essential services.”

Gerald Norlander at the Public Utility Law Project ponders what would happen if there were two negotiating tables discussing the merger, one public and the other secret.

“If there is a second table where views are exchange and negotiations are occurring, it doesn’t do well for transparency,” he said.

Public statements from both Comcast and the Cuomo Administration did little to clear the air.

“It was an initial meeting to discuss the public interest benefits of the transaction for New York,” a Comcast representative said in a one-sentence statement in response to questions about the meeting.

Not exactly, says the Cuomo Administration.

“The meeting was to explain the new law, the PSC’s new powers and its expanded oversight,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

As has been the case during much of the merger debate, Time Warner Cable has remained silent and has refused to comment.

Comcast oregonThe governor himself has avoided taking sides, claiming he will abide by the recommendations made by the PSC. But if true, why involve the governor’s office in the merger or meet privately with either the PSC or the companies involved?

“The state is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said in May. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

Cuomo himself has received at least $200,000 in campaign contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable. With customer satisfaction scores for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the basement, lobbying has been a necessity and Time Warner Cable is one of the state’s top lobbying forces, spending $500,000 of its subscribers’ money in New York in 2013 alone. Comcast spent $60,000, despite only serving a small sliver of customers in downstate New York.

The two companies also donated a combined $500,000 to a secretive state Democratic party account which Cuomo controls. Ironically, some of that money was used to run ads celebrating Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to get money out of politics.

New York Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout is seeking to oust Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the fall election. One of the issues she is campaigning on is Cuomo’s significant contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable and his apparent lack of interest in stopping the merger. At a campaign stop in Syracuse, Teachout claims Comcast will raise your rates and offer no significant benefits to New Yorkers. She’d strongly oppose the merger and media consolidation in general, if elected. WRVO Radio reports. Aug. 29, 2014 (1:26)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Teachout

Teachout

Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu (who coined the term “Net Neutrality”) are less murky on the issue. Both strongly oppose the merger and cable industry consolidation generally and have expressed serious concern about the governor’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Andrew Letson’s Politics Blog considers the differences between the two campaigns striking.

“It’s a sharp contrast – between the hypocritical man in office taking money from corporate interests and the candidates with integrity who are funding their campaign through largely individual donors,” Letson writes.

“[Both Wu and Teachout] have said that they would work to block the frightening Comcast-Time Warner merger, something that’s certainly on the minds of many New Yorkers,” says Letson. “What’s nice about that is that New York actually has a lot of power when it comes to this merger, so opposition from both the governor and lieutenant governor would go a long way.”

Letson is a Teachout campaign volunteer, so it is no surprise which candidate he supports.

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Castoff Comcast/Time Warner Customers: Say Hello to GreatLand Connections

Charter_logoCharter Communications, Inc. and Comcast Corporation today announced the name of the new cable company that will be spun off from Comcast upon completion of the Comcast – Time Warner Cable merger and the Comcast – Charter transactions.

The company now known as “SpinCo” or “Midwest Cable LLC” will be known as GreatLand Connections, Inc.

Although the name has been registered as a trademark, there is no known website or logo yet.

“We are pleased to publicly announce the name of this exciting new company we are building,” said Michael Willner, president and chief executive officer of GreatLand Connections. “The name GreatLand Connections pays homage to the rich history and striking geographies of the diverse communities in which the company will operate. It brings to mind our commitment to connecting people and businesses with terrific products and excellent service in the almost 1000 historic communities – large and small – across the 11 states we will serve.”

Former Insight Cable customers may recall Willner presided over that cable operator for years before it was acquired by Time Warner Cable.

GreatLand Connections will serve customers thrown out by Comcast and Time Warner Cable to keep their combined share of the cable television business under 30%. Most of the 2.5 million customers are in less desirable markets in the midwest and southeast.

It will likely launch as the country’s fifth largest cable operator, behind Charter Communications.

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Penn. State Mayors Association: We Support the Merger Because Comcast Gave Us Piles of Cash

In a rare moment of honesty in hundreds of filings in support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger from various groups, politicians, and non-profits that have received substantial contributions from Comcast, the president of the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association admits the primary reason his group supports the merger is that Comcast has given them piles of money:

In my opinion, Comcast has been an exceptional corporate sponsor which has given substantial support to my municipality and mayoral association.

 

pennsupport

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