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Charter’s Channel Roulette: Keeping Your Favorite Channels May Require an Upgrade

Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers are now getting a taste of the frustration that original Charter Communications customers have experienced for years in dealing with the company’s complicated TV packages.

Sheila Topmiller in northern Kentucky wasn’t the only former Time Warner Cable customer to see her bill spike after Charter took over and rolled out its new Spectrum TV packages. Her bill increased from $152 to $180 a month — a $28 rate increase. Her triple-play TV lineup had to change, along with her bill.

One of the highlighted points Charter executives told Wall Street and investors regarding its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks was that Charter’s “simplified pricing” and crackdown on promotions would result in higher average revenue from customers over time. The reasons are simple: fewer value-priced broadband options, illusory TV channel “choice” in packages designed to compel customer upgrades, higher phone pricing, and no more deals for complaining customers.

TV packages are supposed to offer customers at least the illusion of choice, giving options to cut down a TV package in return for a lower bill. But cable operators like Charter Communications are savvy enough to know what channels are considered “must-have” by customers, and can move networks from one tier to another with little notice. This can force subscribers to upgrade to get back channels stripped from their current package. Now Time Warner Cable customers shifting to Spectrum packages are discovering six popular Viacom-owned channels Nickelodeon, MTV, VH-1, Spike, BET, and Comedy Central are only included in the most expensive tier.

Pay-per-laugh

Just a year ago, these six networks were commonly found as part of Charter’s cheapest “Select” TV tier. But new customers found them transitioned first to the Silver tier, and finally to Charter’s most expensive “Gold” package. Existing Charter customers may not have noticed because the networks were often grandfathered into their current package, but ex-Time Warner Cable customers like Topmiller did. She has kids, and Nickelodeon is considered a “must-have” network in her home.

“You have to subscribe all the way to the highest plan to get Nickelodeon,” she complained.

This isn’t the first time channels have been shifted from one package to another, and Charter is not the only cable operator following this practice. In 2012, Comcast got a lot of heat for moving the popular commercial-free Turner Classic Movies from its Digital Starter package to its much more expensive Digital Preferred tier. Customers that wanted TCM back had to pay an extra $22 a month for the upgrade.

Time Warner Cable had its own tiers, but incentivized most customers through bundles and promotions to take its Preferred TV package that bundled Starter, Standard and Variety Pass options together. Time Warner Cable also didn’t bundle premium movie channels into TV packages the way Charter does. Charter’s Silver package, as well as adding basic networks, also bundles HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime. Upgrading to Gold to win back those six Viacom basic networks also gets you the aforementioned premium movie channels plus Starz, TMC, Starz/Encore, Epix, and NFL RedZone. For many customers, Gold is aptly named because it results in a considerably higher bill unless a customer already subscribed to most or all of the available premium networks through Time Warner Cable or Bright House Networks in the past.

To boost revenue, a cable operator need only shift popular cable networks into higher-priced tiers and watch customers follow.

Charter Communications may sell you a Silver or Gold package to restore your old lineup, but there is a better way to get channels back without spending money on premium movie channels you may not want.

Spectrum quietly offers two “digi-pack” options to customers who balk at paying for HBO and other premium networks:

  • Digi-pack 1 ($12) gives you access to all Silver-level basic cable networks, but no premium movie channels;
  • Digi-pack 2 ($12) gives you access to all Gold-level basic cable networks, but no premium movie channels.

But Charter representatives still claim its TV package “simplification” and new pricing is good for customers.

“It’s actually less money when you factor in there is no modem fee. No data caps, no contract to sign, no modem fees,” said Charter (and former Time Warner Cable) spokesman Mike Pedelty. He doesn’t mention customers could buy their own modems and avoid Time Warner Cable’s modem fees, and Charter’s predecessor also had no data caps or contracts to sign.

Fox-Charter Showdown — Charter/Spectrum Customers Could Lose Fox Nets Wednesday

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 1 Comment

Every week brings the threat of yet another programming blackout because cable programmers want to be paid more and cable operators want to pay the same or less. This time, Fox Networks Group has sent a final warning to Charter Communications that their customers will lose several cable networks as soon as Wednesday if the two companies cannot reach a renewal agreement.

“Fox and Charter have an agreement to carry the Fox networks that Charter has chosen to ignore,” Fox said in a statement that was updated today. “We’re disappointed that despite our best efforts to reach a resolution, Charter Spectrum subscribers could lose access to multiple Fox sports and entertainment networks on April 12.”

The latest dispute surrounds the lucrative volume discounts that Time Warner Cable formerly negotiated for some of Fox’s non-news-related cable networks. Charter Communications acquired both Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks to secure those kinds of volume discounts for itself. In general, the larger a cable system is, the lower the wholesale rate charged for cable programming. Charter hoped it could continue paying the lower rates Time Warner Cable managed to secure after acquiring the much larger cable system. But cable programmers are not buying Charter’s approach and in one case sued.

In March, Univision blocked Charter from carrying its Spanish-language networks Univision, Unimás, Galavisión, Univision Deportes and El Rey in a similar dispute. A temporary restraining order brought the networks back to the lineup a day later, at least temporarily. Univision sued Charter Communications in 2016 over the programming fee dispute.

A significant amount of money is at stake depending on which side ultimately wins in court.

In the case of Univision, Charter’s own contract with the Spanish language programmer expired on June 30, 2016. That would normally require Charter to negotiate a contract renewal that it knew would be more costly than what it paid under the old contract. Charter learned Time Warner Cable had negotiated a contract with Univision that delivered better volume discounts and was not set to expire until June 2022.

To allow Charter Communications to argue that Time Warner Cable’s contract should continue to apply after the merger, it structured its acquisition (on paper at least) to allow Charter to claim Time Warner Cable would continue to manage all of its cable systems. Charter’s lawyers argued that because “Time Warner Cable” is in charge, the wholesale rates Time Warner Cable negotiated should now apply to all Charter systems.

Univision, among other programmers, balked at Charter’s creative thinking.

“Everyone knows that is simply not true: the longstanding CEO and the senior executive team of Charter, as well as its pre-existing board of directors, now in fact manage and control all such cable systems, and virtually the entire TWC leadership team has departed,” Univision argued in its 2016 lawsuit.

If the programmers win, Charter will have to negotiate new carriage agreements at 2017 prices instead of continuing to pay the lower rates Time Warner Cable won for itself in the past.

A similar dispute is likely behind the current battle between Charter and Fox. Each time a cable company has to negotiate a new contract, programmers tend to ask for a considerably higher wholesale price for their channels and try to get cable systems to also carry their other networks. When a cable operator refuses to pay what it considers to be an unconscionable renewal rate or does not want to carry the programmer’s other networks, a showdown takes place that often leads to channels being temporarily removed from the lineup. Cable companies usually lose these battles after subscribers get hostile, but some smaller cable operators have walked away from programmers like Viacom for good when the renewal price stayed too high.

As is the tradition in these disputes, Fox launched a website and social media blitz to warn Charter customers they are about to lose access to 19 regional sports channels, FX, FXX, FOX Movie Channel, National Geographic TV, Fox Sports and Fox Deportes and asked customers to start calling Charter and complain. The current dispute does not involve the FOX (TV) Network, the Fox News Channel or the Fox Business Channel.

“We’re disappointed that despite our best efforts to reach a resolution, Charter Spectrum subscribers could lose access to multiple Fox sports and entertainment networks on April 12,” FOX wrote on its website. “Charter’s tactics could result in its subscribers missing our popular programming including Fox Sports’ telecasts of the St. Louis Cardinals and Blues, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cincinnati Reds and many other MLB, NBA and NHL teams on Fox Regional Sports Networks, Fox Deportes, National Geographic, and FX’s hit dramas The Americans and Feud as well as much more award winning programming.”

“Fox is trying to gouge our customers using the increasingly common tactic of threats and removal of programming,” Charter responded in a statement. “They are attempting to extort Charter for hundreds of millions of dollars. We will continue to work towards a fair agreement.”

Fox Networks is using this ad to warn Charter Spectrum customers they could lose Fox programming. (0:30)

Nationwide Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Charter Claiming False Advertising, Deficient Equipment

Phillip Dampier April 3, 2017 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 4 Comments

Charter Communications is facing a second lawsuit related to false advertising about its ability to provide fast internet service and allegations the company knowingly supplied customers with deficient equipment.

Hart et al. v. Charter Communications Inc., is seeking certification as a nationwide class action from a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

The suit claims that Charter’s subsidiary Time Warner Cable purposely leased out modems and wireless routers it knew were incapable of achieving Time Warner Cable Maxx broadband speeds, consistently oversold its broadband network — resulting in slower internet speeds and performance than the company advertised, and raised customers’ bills without adequate notice.

The California lawsuit closely mirrors one filed in February by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and focuses on similar claims that Charter is engaged in “false representations and other wrongful business practices.”

The complaint claims:

  • The company willfully and intentionally advertised internet service it could not provide, claiming customers would receive internet service that was “fast” with “no buffering,” “no slowdowns,” “no lag,” “without interruptions,” “without downtime,” and “without the wait.”
  • Charter leased older generation modems and wireless routers to many of their customers that were incapable of supporting the promised internet speeds. Older technology modems could not provide the full benefit of Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds of 100-300Mbps, and company-provided network gateways delivered Wi-Fi service at speeds considerably lower than advertised.
  • Charter regularly failed to manage their network in a manner that would give customers consistent broadband speeds. Instead, “Defendants included too many subscribers in the same service group and provided too few channels for such subscriber, thus causing an internet ‘traffic jam’ (particularly during peak hours) that slowed every subscriber’s connection to speeds substantially below what was promised and paid-for. Indeed, even when consumers resorted to using wired connections, their Internet speeds still fell short of the promised speeds.”
  • Defendants also have adopted an unlawful and unfair practice of adding new fees or other charges to consumers’ bills without adequate notice and outside of the terms promised upon sign-up. In 2016, one customer signed up for a promotional “Spectrum Internet with Wi-Fi” plan with a fixed rate of $64.99 and a $10.00 “Promotional Discount,” making her plan cost a total of $54.99 per month. This amount was reflected in her February 2017 bill. However, on her March 2017 bill, the customer was automatically charged $59.99, a $5.00 increase of which she was not given adequate notice and which was improperly charged to her credit card automatically.

The lawyers bringing the case propose to include as class members anyone who purchased internet service from Time Warner Cable/Charter Communications nationwide, those who believed the company’s advertising that claimed speeds were fast and reliable, and customers enrolled in auto-pay who were not properly informed of changes in price or the terms of service. If certified, the potential size of the class action case could involve millions of customers.

FCC Reverses Merger Condition Requiring Charter to Overbuild to Compete

Reuters is reporting the Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission has reversed a pro-consumer mandate requiring Charter to overbuild at least one million homes to offer competitive internet service. The requirement was imposed on Charter Communications as part of the FCC’s approval of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016.

The overbuild requirement would have forced Charter to directly compete with incumbent phone and/or cable operators in areas where only one provider now offers service.

Pai

The petition to repeal the condition was personally circulated by FCC chairman Ajit Pai who didn’t feel the FCC should mandate cable companies to compete as part of a merger approval.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler pushed for the requirement, noting that Charter’s merger offered an opportunity to incorporate pro-consumer deal conditions like increased competition. The overbuild requirement would have required Charter to expand its cable service in areas where only telephone company DSL was available or give an opportunity for consumers to have a choice of cable operators. Pai’s effort gives Charter a big break, now only requiring the company to offer high-speed internet as a de facto monopoly to two million new customers where no internet service currently exists.

It also represents a gift to small independent cable operators and their lobbying arm, the American Cable Association, who feared the overbuild requirement would bring Charter into their service areas as an unwelcome competitor that would have “devastating effects on the smaller broadband providers Charter will overbuild” and could put them out of business.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has its own pending filing asking the FCC to eliminate other deal conditions, including a prohibition on data caps Charter must adhere to for up to seven years.

Judge Set to Hear N.Y. v. Charter Internet Speed Suit Forced to Recuse; He’s a Subscriber

Judge Engelmayer

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will have to wait to bring his lawsuit claiming Charter/Spectrum is ripping off New York consumers with false speed claims until the courts can find a judge that isn’t a Charter/Spectrum subscriber.

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer recused himself from hearing the case in state court Wednesday because he has a conflict of interest – he’s a Charter/Spectrum customer and could receive monetary damages if the cable company is found culpable.

“I am obligated to recuse,” Judge Engelmayer said, while also apologizing for not doing so earlier. As a former Time Warner Cable customer, he was unfamiliar with the Spectrum brand and only recently realized Charter Communications had acquired Time Warner Cable. “I can barely use a toaster. I have no idea what internet service I subscribe to.”

Charter Communications is trying to get the case heard in a presumably more friendly venue – federal court, and the case is on hold until Schneiderman completes his argument to have the case heard by a New York court. Charter argues that Schneiderman should not be allowed to bring enforcement actions under state law in state courts just because he is dissatisfied with the performance of the FCC.

The New York Attorney General brought the action after allegedly finding extensive evidence Time Warner Cable was not delivering the internet speeds the company promised in its advertising and in some cases left customers with equipment incapable of supporting the higher speeds customers purchased.

If Schneiderman can successfully keep the case in New York, the courts will have to find a judge with Verizon FiOS or no internet at all — a tall order in a state where Charter/Spectrum’s service area covers Buffalo to Manhattan and all points in-between.

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  • Bobbie Jo: What about being billed for a service you don't even have?? Then they report it to your credit.. 6 months of Frontier-communications-corp hanging up...
  • Bill: I've had it with Time Warner and now Spectrum. Just purchased an amplified antenna and hooked it up. I get over 15 local channels in true HD (1080p vs...
  • LG: "simplified pricing" ..yes, it means they're "simply" raising the price. "It's actually less money when you factor in there is no modem fee. No d...
  • LG: Every time I hear this guys name I get sick. He's an enemy of the United States as far as I'm concerned. First he sells the most private areas of ou...
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  • Milan Gohil: Phillip, I trust that you will let us know what we can do to fight this assault on our freedom! Ajit PAID is a slimy POS! Trump is well on his way to...
  • Tammy Nelson: This is crap! Why are the customers always losing and they always win? I pay quite a bit for cable and internet. If you are cutting channels, at le...
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  • BobInIllinois: Jo, FYI on this. YouTube wanted to get this streaming service up fast. The 5 big US cities that you listed all have network tv stations owned and ...
  • Dave Burstein: Phil Good work on this. Nearly no one has reported that the FCC is paying AT&T for an offering they would have anyway....

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