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Cox Cable’s Anachronistic World of Nonsense About Data Caps: Inventing New Ways to Bill You More

Cox is behind the times.

Cox is behind the times.

While the rest of the world is moving towards gigabit broadband and unlimited access, Cox Cable continues to live in the past with a regime of data caps the company blames on increased data usage. Your only solution is to upgrade to a bigger data plan you may not want or really need.

Somehow, the folks at Cox can’t seem to manage the natural growth of the Internet while start-ups ranging from Google Fiber to a local fiber provider just getting started in our own community goes out of their way to point out how unnecessary usage limits and usage billing really are.

At Stop the Cap!, we’ll let you in on a little secret the “tech wonder twins” at Cox forgot to mention: data caps are not about managing Internet traffic, they are about managing to control costs, protect cable-TV revenue, and eventually empty customers’ wallets.

Since data caps don’t make much sense in the 21st century reality-based community, Cox attempted a longer-form rationale for data caps in a video that resembles a bad VHS copy of an interrogation by your local homicide squad. Don’t worry, only the truth gets murdered by the ironically named “Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah.” Six minutes later, you still know they’re full of it.

Tip: Next time, bring “the tech.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cox Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah Internet Usage Trends.mp4

What Cox still fails to understand (and what Google will have to teach them when they invade Cox’s biggest territories, including Phoenix) is that data caps and usage billing are as anachronistic as those 1978 limited edition Diana Prince/Wonder Woman glasses Sarah is still wearing. (6:17)

Sun Valley Conference Could Spark More Giant Merger Deals; Murdoch, Verizon Sniffing Around

Phillip Dampier July 8, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon, Video No Comments
big fish

All of these media and content companies may be up for grabs.

Could Rupert Murdoch become the next owner of CNN? Will Verizon consider buying out the owner of more than a dozen cable networks, or the Walt Disney Company, owner of ABC?

Since 1983, media moguls have assembled annually in posh Sun Valley, Idaho to talk business. But never have they met while several huge consolidation and merger deals are on the table among their colleagues. Comcast acquiring Time Warner Cable and AT&T buying out DirecTV are both seen as game-changers among Wall Street bankers and the media elite, leaving many self-consciously pondering whether they are no longer big enough to stay competitive in a consolidated media world.

The Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution both report that at least one huge merger deal could emerge as a result of this week’s conference. Among the most likely buyers is FOX CEO Rupert Murdoch, who is reportedly looking to buy a major content company.

The most likely target is Time Warner (Entertainment), former owner of Time Warner Cable. After spinning off its money-losing magazine unit, TW has become much more focused on content and distribution – exactly what Murdoch is looking for. Time Warner owns New Line Cinema, HBO, Turner Broadcasting System, The CW Television Network, Warner Bros., Kids’ WB, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim, CNN, DC Comics, Warner Bros. Animation, Cartoon Network Studios, Hanna-Barbera, MLB Network and Castle Rock Entertainment. In fact, altogether the company owns or controls dozens of television channels which could all soon fall into the hands of Murdoch.

A Murdoch acquisition would be the last death-blow for Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System, which launched CNN, TBS, and TNT and is now a division within Time Warner. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel was launched as a conservative alternative to CNN’s perceived left-leaning reporting. A Murdoch buyout would either deliver bipartisan profits to the media mogul or allow him to shut down the network or relaunch it under the Fox News brand.

Such an acquisition would not be cheap. Time Warner is worth as estimated $62 billion.

A Murdoch buyout would be especially troublesome for those already upset with corporate media consolidation. Murdoch would end up controlling three major U.S. networks – FOX, CW, and MyNetworkTV, multiple cable news channels, dozens of local television stations in major media markets, and more cable networks than most people can count. In fact, the assembled list of Murdoch-owned media properties is enormous:

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Murdoch: The next owner of CNN?

Adult Swim, Boomerang, Cartoon Network, CNN Worldwide, HLN, Inside CNN Tour & Store, TBS, TCM, TheSmokingGun.com, TNT, truTV, Turner Sports, Fox Business Network, Fox News, Star India, YES Network, Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000 Pictures, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox International Productions, Twentieth Century Fox Television, Fox Home Entertainment, Shine Group, Twentieth Century Fox Animation, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph (Australia), The Sunday Telegraph (Australia), The Herald Sun, The Sunday Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Sunday Mail, The Advertiser, NT News, The Sunday Territorian, The Sunday Times (Australia), The Sunday Tasmanian, Mercury, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures International, New Line Cinema, Warner Home Video, Warner Bros. Advanced Digital Services, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Warner Bros. Technical Operations, Warner Bros. Anti-Piracy Operations, Warner Bros. Television Group, Warner Bros. Television, Telepictures Productions, Warner Horizon Television, Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, Warner Bros. International Television Production, Warner Bros. International Branded Services, Studio 2.0, The CW Television Network, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, HarperCollins General Books Group, HarperCollins Children’s Books Group, HarperCollins Christian Publishers, HarperCollins UK, HarperCollins Canada, HarperCollins Australia/New Zealand, HarperCollins India, FX, FXX, FXM, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo Mundo, FSN, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports 2, FOX Soccer Plus, FOX College Sports, FOX Deportes, FOX Life, Baby TV, Fox Broadcasting Company, Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts, Sky Sports, Sky Movies, Sky News, Sky Deutschland, Sky Italia, MyNetworkTV, MundoFox, FOX International Channels, Fox Sports Enterprises, HBO, HBO On Demand, HBO GO, Cinemax, Cinemax on Demand, MAX GO, HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Family, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone, HBO Latino, More Max, Action Max, Thriller Max, 5 Star Max, Max Latino, Outer Max, Movie Max, Barron’s, MarketWatch, Factiva, Dow Jones Risk & Compliance, Dow Jones VentureSource, All Things Digital, Amplify, News America Marketing, and Storyful.

Murdoch has already shown a willingness to spend big. He has recently taken an ownership interest in the up and coming Vice Media, popular with the under 30-viewing crowd. He also spent $415 million to buy romance novel publisher Harlequin Enterprises.

But Murdoch may not be the only one shopping for a deal. The Wall Street Journal offered a shopping list:

  • Small cable network owners: Nobody just owns three or four cable networks these days. Content conglomerates like CBS, Disney, Time Warner and Comcast own 15, 30, or even 40 different channels. Smaller players are ripe for the picking. Chief among them include Scripps Networks Interactive (Food Network, HGTV), AMC Networks (AMC, IFC, Sundance), and Crown Media (Hallmark).
  • Small studios: Owning a small Hollywood studio is quaint, but Wall Street investment bankers think the time is long past to sell out to larger corporate entities who can better leverage distribution of their releases, easy enough if you own your own theater chain, pay cable network, broadcast stations, and basic cable outlets.
Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

Both phone companies are attending Sun Valley for the first time.

In addition to buyout offers from the largest networks around, Discovery Networks is also in the mood to grow larger at the urging of its board of directors, which includes Dr. John Malone, CEO of Liberty Global. Malone is behind much of the cheerleading to consolidate the cable industry and helped spark the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal when his partly owned Charter Communications sought a takeover of Time Warner Cable itself.

Wall Street bankers love even better the idea of selling Discovery to a new owner – Disney.

For the first time, phone companies AT&T and Verizon are also in attendance at Sun Valley, and analysts don’t believe the CEOs are there for summer vacation.

Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of media and telecom consulting firm Carmel Group, says Verizon has been most lacking in the content ownership department and “needs something else right now” as rivals bulk up. AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV only underlines that sentiment among many Wall Street analysts who think Time Warner (Entertainment) could be an option if Verizon isn’t outbid by Murdoch.

All of this shopping has caused alarm for some, including CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter who declared, “I will eat my remote control … in fact, I will eat my copy of the New York Post … if Murdoch becomes the owner of CNN.” 

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Digits Media Consolidation 7-7-14.flv

The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Digits’ explores the ongoing consolidation of media creators and distributors. This year’s media conference in Sun Valley could spark more merger deals. (5:02)

Los Angeles Has Accumulated $35 Million in Cable Franchise Fees It Has No Idea How to Spend

35-LACityView

Channel 35 is Los Angeles’ Government Access station

Los Angeles cable subscribers are paying $30-50 a year in extra franchise fees the city government has no idea what to do with, allowing a bank account dedicated to housing the unspent funds to reach $35 million and counting.

A new audit by the Office of the City Controller found no misappropriation or ethical lapses by the city government, but it did criticize the lack of long-term planning regarding how franchise revenue should be used, as well as lax auditing of expenses that were paid from the fund. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin added the city’s lack of consistent auditing of the five major cable operators servicing greater Los Angeles may be allowing cable operators to charge customers franchise fees the companies are keeping for themselves. A 2006 law passed at the behest of Verizon and AT&T allowing statewide video franchise agreements in California isn’t helping either.

For decades, communities have been able to demand up to a 5% franchise fee from cable and phone companies offering video services in their areas in return for access to public rights-of-way and other public property. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have requested the maximum allowed – 5% of the provider’s gross annual revenue earned within the city. Cable operators retaliated by recouping the franchise fee by billing cable customers for it on a separate line on monthly cable bills.

In Los Angeles, 60% of all franchise fees ($31 million) paid are transferred to the city’s all-purpose General Fund, used for all types of city expenses. The remaining 40 percent ($12.4 million) is supposed to be earmarked for a Telecommunications Fund, but the city often raids that account as well. Time Warner Cable subscribers account for 85% of Los Angeles’ cable franchise revenue, AT&T U-verse contributes another 10% with other operators paying considerably less. Last year, Charter Cable wrote a check for less than $5,000, primarily because only a tiny part of the city of Los Angeles is served by Charter today.

So where is the excess money still in the account coming from?

fund balance

The Unintended Consequences of Statewide Video Franchising

Eight years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2987:  the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006” (DIVCA). In reality, DIVCA was just another statewide video franchise bill heavily pushed by the state’s dominant phone companies — AT&T and Verizon — to let them begin offering video services without having to sign franchise agreements with thousands of local governments across the state.

verizon attAT&T and Verizon sold the legislation to the public as a red-tape cutter to bring Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse to millions of Californians without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

But lobbyists from both phone companies, as well as several cable companies, were successful in inserting their own amendments into the law that undercut their arguments for passing the legislation:

  • As local franchise agreements expired, companies took their franchise renewal business direct to the state, cutting off local oversight. Communities could no longer require operators to expand into rural areas or impose fines for sub-standard service;
  • Cable companies won the right to toss Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels out of their buildings. Many communities assigned responsibility for housing and operating PEG channels as part of their franchise agreement. DIVCA rendered those agreements void and unenforceable;
  • Cable companies no longer had to offer institutional broadband networks for free or at a discount to local governments, schools and libraries, and many existing networks were closed down as soon as the local franchise agreement expired and communities balked at the new prices charged by telecom companies.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment was language that gets AT&T and Verizon out of meeting obligations to build out their fiber networks where they choose not to built them, while still compelling smaller independent telephone companies to offer service to every customer within their telephone service area within a reasonable amount of time.

So instead of promoting a rush towards video competition, both AT&T and Verizon won concessions that let them cherry pick — on their own schedule — customers for AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS:

  • Verizon is in compliance with DIVCA as long as 25% of the households where service is available are low-income and within 5 years, Verizon increases that to at least 40%;
  • AT&T stays out of trouble with DIVCA by providing video service to 35% of low-income households where service is available. Within five years, AT&T must reach at least 50%.

One of the biggest victims of DIVCA are PEG channels which lost the sponsorship of the cable companies that used to underwrite them as part of their franchise agreements. American Community Television reported in California, Illinois and Indiana, where statewide video franchising laws were passed, cable operators that operated PEG channels closed the doors, sometimes with only 30 days notice. Even in states where PEG funding remained, channels have been exiled to Channel Siberia (eg. Channel 1,512) or are under constant threat of losing their channel if they don’t meet an operator’s arbitrary quality of programming criteria.

Time Warner Cable has moved PEG channels to digital service in a majority of their service areas, requiring many customers to have an added-cost cable box to watch.

To help Californian PEG services cope, a state law permitted cities to collect an extra 1% of gross revenue from cable operators to keep funding these channels. But if a city already collects a full 5% franchise fee, any money collected from PEG channels must only be spent on their operations — no raiding of funds allowed. If the local government thinks there are bigger priorities than supporting public, educational, and government access, the future of PEG channels is questionable.

How to Spend the Untouchable Proceeds

The new home of Los Angeles' Government Access channel

The new home of Los Angeles’ Government Access channel

With Los Angeles-area cable companies collecting and sending on the proceeds of the 1% PEG surcharge to city coffers, the money has been more or less just piling up over the last seven years, unspent.

As of the end of June last year, the city had squirreled away about $22 million collected from cable TV customers stashed in a non interest-bearing account. PEG operations across the United States are not known for being profligate spenders, relying on budgets that would be insufficient to keep the lights on at a typical local public television station. So some question whether Los Angeles’ Public Access, Educational Access, and Government Access networks need $22 million to continue operations.

The city has decided the Government Access channel — the one that airs council meetings and other political functions — does need a new home.  So the city is spending $20 million to completely renovate one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, the long-vacant three-story Merced Theater near Olvera Street.

When complete, the state-of-the-art digital facilities of Cityview Channel 35 may rival those of some commercial television stations in Los Angeles. The building will house a small performance venue on the first floor, a studio with space for a 70-person live audience, and plenty of office space on the third floor. What it evidently won’t have room for is the Public Access and Educational Access channels that make up the rest of the PEG trio. The new facility is for the exclusive use of Channel 35.

Local residents are happy someone is finally doing something with the theater, which has been empty and unused for at least 30 years. The project could also make Los Angeles’ Government Access channel one of the most capable in the country, producing high quality programming well beyond the ubiquitous city council meetings.

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35, told Downtown News. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.”

Downtown News partly misled its readers when it suggested cable providers are footing the bill for the renovated home of Channel 35. Although money from the city’s general fund won’t be used for the project, the money did originate from cable subscribers who have paid higher cable bills since 2007 because the city elected to collect a 1% PEG franchise fee.

Galperin

Galperin

Even after spending $20 million on the Merced Theater, the money from Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter cable TV subscribers will keep rolling in. The audit found that by the time the new Merced Theater facility opens in 2016, the city will again have between $21-25 million in unspent PEG funds.

Galperin thinks throwing more money at traditional PEG operations would be a mistake, particularly when younger audiences are not even subscribing to cable television.

“We’re in a new era,” Galperin said. “The old rules that envisioned everybody getting their programming from cable are changing before our very eyes. We are in a totally different era in terms of how people get their information, so much of viewership is on the Internet now, not necessarily on cable.”

Because PEG funds can only be spent on PEG operations, as a starting point, funds could be spent to build up what is now an anemic, barely functioning website for Channel 35. Although the channel does stream online, it is intermittent in our experience. Channel 35 might also partner with local public broadcasting and minority-interest channels in co-production ventures. It should also develop a robust on-demand library of its content for site visitors because that is increasingly how Americans choose to watch television.

Galperin suggested other uses including a public Wi-Fi network and city Internet sites for programming and other information, but these may stray outside of the boundaries of what is permissible under current California and federal law.

Of course, there is one other alternative – rescind the PEG fee altogether until there is a legitimate need to collect the money from already overburdened cable subscribers.

franchise fees

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Surviving DIVCA.mp4

Silicon Valley Community Television aired this lengthy conference last fall for the benefit of local governments across California still trying to make sense of the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, a provider-influenced piece of legislation that has tied the hands of most communities to manage their local telecommunications infrastructure for the good of their citizens. (2 hours, 47 minutes)

 

Time Warner Cable Prepares to Unveil Set-Top-Box-Less Initiative That Comcast Limits to College Campuses

roku

Roku

Time Warner Cable is preparing to solve one of its customers’ biggest annoyances — the expensive and unruly set-top box — by getting rid of them for customers who don’t want them.

CED reports Time Warner Cable provided insight into its “Boxless Home” project at the SCTE Rocky Mountain symposium held last week in Denver.

“One of the projects that I lead is called Boxless Homes where we can take a different device and use it instead of our set-top boxes,” said Time Warner’s Louis Williamson. “We’ve actually addressed the big screen with the Roku. We’ve launched it but we haven’t officially launched what we call our Boxless Homes because its missing a couple of the key Title 6 requirements. and the most important one we’re trying to get working right now is secondary audio. We have closed captioning and other things in it.”

The new project would let subscribers pack up and return their current set-top boxes (not DVRs just yet) and replace them with Internet-enabled Roku, Xbox, and Samsung Smart TVs, potentially saving customers close to $100 a year or more. It is part of the broad transition away from analog service cable companies are making as they gradually move towards IP distribution of content — creating one large broadband pipe across which cable television, Internet access, and phone service will travel.

“We describe things like the iPhones, and iPads and other stuff as companion devices,” Williamson added. “You can use them with your TV, they work as remotes and they’re good for looking at TV for a bit. When you go to something that fits on the big screen, the 10-foot experience like a Roku or the Xbox, or our work we’ve done as an app on Samsung TV that does [live TV and video-on-demand], that’s where we look at as Boxless Homes. You don’t have to have one our boxes; you can use one of those devices as outlets in your home. We’ve been driving heavily to get to that point where we can enable all of our services on a device that is theirs. In a couple of markets the channel lineup is pretty much there except for the transactional video on demand. It’s just getting all the Title 6 compliance in and a good marketing strategy around how you drive it.”

Time Warner management likes the initiative because set-top box equipment is costly to buy and support and many customers would prefer to do away with the frustration and cost of extra equipment, especially when many cable set-top boxes installed in homes before Jan. 1, 2014 use more electricity than a home refrigerator, consuming an average of 446kWh hours each (about $50 a year per box, depending on local energy costs).

Time Warner Cable customers looking to save money already have the option of returning their old energy vampire set-top boxes for one of several new models Time Warner has introduced this year. Contact your local office to find the Time Warner set-top boxes available for service in your area:

Make
Model
Type
Features
On Power (W)
Sleep Power (W)
APD Power (W)
Total Electric Consumption (kWh/yr)
Motorola DCX3510-M Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 22.8 18.3 18.3 172
Motorola DCX3200-M Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 14.3 11.7 11.6 110
Cisco 8742HDC Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 21.7 18.4 18.4 170
Cisco 4742HDC Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 18.8 14.1 14.1 136
Samsung SMT-H3272 Cable APD, AVP, CC, DVR, D2, HD, MR, MS 30.3 25.8 25.8 239
Samsung SMT-H3362 Cable APD, AVP, CC, D2, HD, HNI 14.7 13.3 13.3 120
Feature Key
Shortcut
Feature Name
APD Automatic Power Down enabled by default
AVP Advanced Video Processing
CC CableCARD
D2 DOCSIS 2.0
D3 DOCSIS 3.0
DVR Digital Video Recorder
HD High Definition
HNI Home Networking Interface
MR Multi-room
MS Multi-stream
XCD Transcoding

For now, Time Warner expects most of those going box-less will be in the under-30 age demographic. They already have game consoles or Internet-enabled set-top boxes like Roku and are comfortable switching in and out of the Time Warner Cable TV app.

timewarner twc“I think its to early to say how its going to impact the traditional world,” Williamson said in response to a question about whether Boxless Homes will replace traditional MPEG-2 services or augment them. “Currently we don’t even market it or tell anyone about it. The IP video stuff has rolled out word of month. These are the early adopters who are understanding that there’s a TWC app that goes on the Roku box. They decide to go down to their kid’s room or somewhere else and make that their secondary outlet. That’s how it’s evolving now. I think as it gets more and more prevalent and we get on more and more devices, which is going to take time, then its going to be more interesting. Our app on Samsung TV is much closer to our same look and feel as on our se-sop box. Unfortunately these are the real high-end Samsung TVs with the smart hub technology and things like that. There’s not enough of them to understand what the impact is on our footprint.”

Comcast is also working on a box-less approach, but only for college campuses. Its “XFINITY on Campus” project offers streaming cable TV over students’ laptops or portable devices exclusively while on campus. The service is now limited to Emerson College, Drexel University, University of New Hampshire, Lasell College, and MIT. Comcast currently has no plans to offer box-less service to residential subscribers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BTIG Demo of New TWC TV App on Roku 12-23-13.flv

Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research produced this hands-on demonstration and review of the TWC on Roku app. (6:23)

Independent Cable Companies Unify Against Cable TV Programmer Rate Increases

big 7Subscribers of more than 900 independent cable companies may face an unwelcome surprise this summer in the form of a mid-year rate increase.

For years, members of the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) have joined forces to negotiate for the kinds of volume discounts only the largest cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish Networks, Charter, and Cablevision have traditionally received. NCTC members range from family owned cable operators, rural co-ops, community-owned providers, independent telephone companies, and small multi-system operators servicing multiple communities. With group-buying power, NCTC-member cable companies used to be able to negotiate volume discounts that could keep their rates competitive with larger providers.

But as consolidation among major network media, cable, satellite, and phone companies marches on, only the largest operators — some directly affiliated with the cable programming networks — are getting the best deals at contract renewal time. All NCTC members combined serve just five million cable TV subscribers. Comcast has 21 million, DirecTV: 20 million, Dish Networks: 14 million, and Time Warner Cable: 11 million.

When NCTC’s contract with Viacom was up for renewal, the owner of networks like MTV and Comedy Central raised the renewal price more than 40 times the rate of inflation. In fact, Viacom’s asking price was so high, operators like Cable ONE pulled the plug on 15 Viacom networks for good and replaced them with other programming. NCTC members eventually compromised on a deal to renew Viacom-owned networks, but customers of companies like Massillon, Ohio-based MCTV are paying the price in the form of a mid-year rate hike Bob Gessner, MCTV’s president, did not want to have to pass on to customers.

MCTV“I don’t like to do this because it puts me in a difficult position of raising prices, which no one likes, or reducing the product, which no one likes, or cutting back on the quality of our customer service, which no one likes,” said Gessner. “Large media companies control all the TV programming and they are raising the price.  The cost of TV programming is rising very rapidly and it is causing this rise in retail prices.”

Some facts about cable TV programming:

  • Nine media companies control 95% of the paid video content consumed in the U.S.;
  • The average household watches only 16 channels, yet networks package their channels to force you to buy those you don’t want to get those that you do want;
  • tvonmysideProgramming network fees account for the bulk of your monthly cable bill;
  • The cost of basic cable has risen 3½ times the rate of inflation over the last 15 years because of demands from networks for higher programming fees;
  • One media company honcho recently stated that, “…content is such a fundamental part of daily life that people will give up food and a roof over their heads before they give up TV.” This shows that they have lost their perspective and the demands for huge increases will continue.
Gessner

Gessner

Gessner has broken ranks with many cable operators that say little more at rate hike time than “increased programming costs.”

Gessner has produced a 20-minute video that carefully explains to his customers what is going on in the cable programming industry and why providers like MCTV are forced to shovel networks onto cable lineups few customers want or watch and how the biggest cable and satellite companies are now negotiating volume-discounted renewal pricing at the expense of smaller providers.

While the largest cable companies in the country secure lower rates through those volume discounts, programmers have found a way to make up the difference: demanding even higher rates for smaller cable companies to cover what they lose from Comcast and other big players.

Gessner, as well as other NCTC member companies, confront huge programmers like Comcast-NBCUniversal, Viacom, Time Warner (Entertainment), Discovery and Disney that first demand 3-7 year renewal contracts with built-in, automatic annual rate increases averaging 5-10 percent, regardless of the ratings of their networks. Most also demand that all of their cable networks be carried on their systems, whether customers are interested in them or not. If these companies dream up new cable networks, like ESPN’s SEC Network and the Longhorn Network, MCTV is committed to carry those channels as well, even though they are of little interest to residents of northeastern Ohio where MCTV operates.

These dream contracts (for cable programmers) are the single biggest reason cable-TV rates are skyrocketing. But Gessner says it gets even worse when those contracts expire. When renewal negotiations begin, programmers these days inevitably demand a “rate reset” which starts rate negotiations at a price 10, 30, even 60 percent higher than under the expiring contract.

local cleveland tv

Those dollar amounts cover local station retransmission consent agreements nationwide.

Gessner says he doesn’t know how much longer MCTV can afford to carry expensive networks like sports channels. If he drops them, angry subscribers could cancel cable service and switch to a provider willing to pay the asking price. Unless all of his competitors stand together, programmers will maintain the upper hand.

Some cable companies, like Cable ONE, are starting to risk the wrath of their customers by refusing to negotiate for terms they consider unreasonable. When subscribers learned the reasons why Cable ONE dropped more than dozen Viacom channels, many were supportive because the company replaced the networks with other channels and promised to keep rate increases down because they won’t have to pass on Viacom’s higher prices. Viacom retaliated by locking out Cable ONE’s Internet customers from accessing any of Viacom’s free-to-view online programming.

“Viacom lets web surfers from Albania watch Spongebob but Viacom blocks people who live in Alabama, and if you are an advocate of this thing called Net Neutrality, you should be very concerned,” Gessner said. “Viacom is blatantly violating the spirit of Net Neutrality by discriminating against certain Internet users in order to extract higher fees from TV viewers. That’s the sort of vicious bullying behavior many of the content companies use to maintain their stranglehold on the U.S. television industry.”

Gessner and other independent cable operators hope cable operators’ willingness to drop cable networks over their price is the start of something big — a pushback that could eventually force programmers to charge rational rates.

“Hopefully this will serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the industry to stop paying these ridiculous prices for TV rights,” said Gessner. “I have no illusion that sanity will come to the industry overnight — it will take time — but this is a step in the right direction.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MCTV Rate Increase 2014.flv

MCTV president Bob Gessner hosted this thoughtful presentation to carefully explain why his customers are facing a $1-3 mid-year rate increase for cable television. Gessner breaks with tradition by explaining the cable television business model is effectively broken and needs serious reform, including more choices for customers seeking fewer channels and a lower bill. It’s well worth 20 minutes of your time. (20:11)

Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[…] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
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TDS Acquires BendBroadband of Oregon in $261 Million Deal; Nothing Changes for Now

tds_hp_logoCentral Oregon’s independent cable television and broadband company — BendBroadband — has been sold to Telephone and Data Systems (TDS), a Chicago-based telephone company in a deal worth $261 million.

TDS, which also owns southwestern U.S. Baja Broadband and 84 percent of US Cellular, promises nothing will change for the company’s 36,000 cable TV, 41,000 Internet, and 22,000 phone customers “for the foreseeable future.” The company also said it plans to keep BendBroadband’s name and 280 employees.

BendBroadband has provided cable television service in Bend, Redmond, Sunriver, Prineville, Madras, and Sisters as far back as 1955, when it imported long distance KOIN (the CBS affiliate out of Portland), KLOR (Portland’s ABC affiliate), and KVAL-TV (Eugene’s NBC affiliate) for the benefit of viewers that could not receive broadcast television station signals from western Oregon blocked by the Cascade Range — high mountains that separated cities like Portland from Bend.

bendbroadband“While BendBroadband has made many smart investments, it is clear that we will need to join forces with a like-minded company to gain the scale necessary to provide the cutting-edge technology and personalized customer experiences that consumers expect,” BendBroadband’s website says.

The company also felt the cable industry was entering a new era of consolidation, necessitating a sale to improve negotiating power with television networks over programming costs.

Cable Industry Mulls Its Options: Usage-Based Billing or Content Provider-Pays Pricing Models

cable showCable industry executives on hand at this year’s Cable Show in Los Angeles are debating whether Netflix has taught the cable industry some important lessons about how to treat its online video competition.

Phil Lind, executive vice president of regulatory affairs at Rogers Communications called Comcast’s peering deal with Netflix a groundbreaking breakthrough on how the Internet will be treated in the future.

Netflix has been forced to compensate the cable and telephone companies for its reliance on their broadband pipes to reach customers.

Mike Fries, president and CEO of Liberty Global said the issue of Net Neutrality relates primarily to online video and the discussion will inevitably come down to choosing between providing a broadband fast lane for content producers willing to pay or adopting usage-based billing that compensates the industry for the growth of streaming video.

Several on the panel disagreed with the contention that Netflix has outmaneuvered the cable industry with a superior on-screen interface and better on-demand content. But Fries said Netflix has achieved more success than the industry’s own TV Everywhere initiative, which unlocks online content for authenticated, paying cable TV subscribers. In addition to unwieldy authentication systems that pester subscribers with frequent log-in demands, content rights issues still dramatically limit the amount of streamed video available from TV Everywhere platforms.

Cable Industry Lobbies to Get Rid of CableCARDs: The Return of the Mandatory Set-Top Box?

Phillip Dampier April 22, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology has approved a draft bill that could effectively render current CableCARD technology obsolete  by allowing cable operators to encrypt channels and introduce new security measures that only work with the cable company’s set-top box.

Cablecard_SciAtl_3-4_view

If you look closely inside your cable set-top box, chances are good a CableCARD similar to this is installed inside. But perhaps not for long.

With strong support from the cable industry, the House Subcommittee approved the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) with language that would end the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on built-in descrambler set-top box equipment unavailable to competitors.

Section 629 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires that consumers have adequate access to alternative equipment to view multichannel video programming. In 2003, the FCC adopted the cable industry-developed CableCARD standard that would let customers view encrypted channels without leasing a traditional set-top cable box.

In fact, if you own a cable set-top box manufactured after 2007, chances are you already have a CableCARD without realizing it. It is built-in to your set-top box and decrypts and authorizes your cable television lineup. The cable industry never saw any need to incorporate CableCARDs into set-top equipment because it was designed to handle those functions without needing the extra card. But the FCC’s “integration ban” has insisted cable companies use the CableCARD with hopes it would stimulate universal support of the technology and help facilitate a breakup of the leased set-top box monopoly.

The cable industry has itself largely to blame for the FCC’s actions. Prior to 1992, some cable operators were notorious for saddling customers with expensive set-top boxes that were large and unwieldy. Cable companies regularly raised the rental price of the mandatory equipment in rate increase maneuvers and charged huge penalties when boxes were lost, stolen, or damaged.

Many cable customers never wanted the boxes, preferring “cable-ready” service, which let the television sort out the television lineup without any extra equipment.

But “Cable-ready” televisions were an impediment to the revenue-enhancing possibilities offered by digital cable television that became common in the 1990s. Existing television sets could not receive the digital channels without a set-top box and many customers avoided upgrading service because of the extra costs and equipment requirements. In other areas, signal theft pushed the industry towards encrypting more than just a few premium movie channels. In high theft areas like New York City, cable operators won permission to scramble most, if not all the cable television lineup. Customers needed boxes to receive those encrypted channels.

As early as January 2005, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC that independent alternatives like the CableCARD were in direct “conflict with cable’s own market imperatives,” adding there was no economic incentive to support third-party equipment and adopting it would result in increased cable bills.

Powell

Powell

Now that CableCARD technology is with us, most cable companies rarely mention it unless customers directly ask. Even CableLabs, the industry engineering group that develops and markets a variety of cable industry technology, has also avoided the subject.

Without any significant backing from the cable industry, most customers never realized they had another option when the cable technician arrived with a leased set-top box in hand. Television manufacturers dropped support for the little-known technology as well.

Cable industry advancements like on-demand viewing don’t work with the standalone CableCARD, creating a disadvantage that further hurt the technology’s chances.

The cable industry argues times have changed and consumers don’t generally want CableCARDs.

NCTA president Michael Powell told Congress that more than 45 million CableCARD-enabled set-top devices are now sitting in customer homes, but only 600,000 of them were requested by cable customers for use in third-party devices. Powell argues supporting CableCARD technology means customers with a leased box are paying for redundant technology. One large cable operator claimed the average set-top box now costs an extra $40-50 to support CableCARD technology.

“Additionally, based on EPA figures, cable subscribers collectively foot the bill for roughly 500 million kilowatt hours consumed by CableCARDs each year,” said Powell. “By all measures, the costs of this misguided rule clearly outweigh its benefits.”

In the end the subcommittee agreed to a compromise by eliminating the “integration ban” that effectively keeps cable companies from switching on new security technology that might not work with CableCARDs but also gives the FCC the authority to create or authorize new independent set-top box technology ‘when needed.’

This means either the cable industry could develop a next generation of CableCARDs that work with advanced security measures or more likely the ongoing advancement of IP-delivery of television programming could make the matter moot. As the cable industry moves towards online streaming of cable channels, various third-party devices like Roku could be used to access much of the cable lineup without worrying about a CableCARD. Recording such programming for later viewing will likely require agreements with copyright-obsessed programmers, the cable industry, and manufacturers, however.

Nobody Raises Rates Like Comcast: Since 2009 Up 68% for Basic, 21% for Expanded Basic Cable

comcast twcDespite arguing its merger with Time Warner Cable would result in greater discounts for cable programming, America’s largest cable company Comcast is already receiving the best volume discounts available but is not passing the savings on to customers.

No major cable operator raised cable television rates more than Comcast, according to a new study from Free Press. Since 2009, Comcast jacked up prices on its broadcast basic television tier by 68 percent. Its more popular expanded basic cable service saw rate hikes amounting to 21 percent over the same time.

In contrast, Time Warner Cable actually cut rates for broadcast basic cable by 2.5% and raised expanded basic prices by 17 percent.

Comcast’s top lobbyist David Cohen has made clear the company’s prices are going to keep rising even if the merger is approved. That is likely to give Time Warner Cable customers sticker shock if Comcast takes over. Comcast is likely to pass whatever cost savings it realizes from the merger back to shareholders, not to customers.

free_press_comcast_twc_video_price_hikes

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