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Charter Shareholders Love Spectrum’s 20% Broadcast TV Fee Increase; Second Rate Hike in 4 Months

Phillip Dampier February 14, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Although Spectrum Cable customers will face higher cable TV bills starting next month, the company’s shareholders are delighted, boosting Charter’s stock price more than $50 a share on the news.

Spectrum’s latest increase (the second in four months) of its Broadcast TV Surcharge will set a uniform national fee of $11.99 a month for all of its cable television customers.

In 2018, customers paid an average of $8.75 a month in local TV surcharges. But last November, Charter raised the surcharge to $9.95 a month. Now, just a few months into 2019, Spectrum wants another $2 a month — a 20% increase — to watch local television signals that are available for free to those with an antenna. That’s a steep increase for what began as a $2 surcharge for some customers starting in 2015.

Charter’s investors reacted positively to the latest rate hike, jumping the stock price from $289.91 a share to $340.95 — a $51.04 boost after the fee increase was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The new surcharge will be reflected on customer bills beginning as early as Feb. 21.

Charter blamed broadcasters for the “rapidly rising cost” of including local TV stations on the cable lineup. In a letter to some state telecommunications regulators, the cable operator claimed it would be inefficient to not raise prices.

Charter’s share price shot up on the news it was increasing its Broadcast TV Surcharge by 20% just four months after the last increase.

“Containing costs and efficiently managing our operations are critical to providing customers with the best value possible,” wrote Melinda Kinney, Charter’s senior director of government affairs for Charter’s Northeast Division. “Like every business, Charter faces rising costs that require occasional price adjustments.”

But many customers, especially those in marginal reception areas, are loudly complaining that Charter is raising its Broadcast TV Fee even as it drops regional over the air stations from its cable lineup. In 2017, Spectrum customers in western Massachusetts reported a gradual exodus of local TV stations from their lineup, starting with WWLP, the NBC affiliate in Springfield with strong local news coverage of the western half of the state. Today, Spectrum only provides western Massachusetts with a single NBC station — WNYT in Albany, N.Y., which keeps viewers up to date with the latest political machinations of the New York State legislature.

Next to go was Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB — airing the strongest coverage of local and state news of any ABC affiliate in the state. In its place, viewers now receive WTEN, the ABC station in Albany, which is covering Sen. Jim Tedisco’s support for splitting New York into two separate states — a ‘crucial’ issue for subscribers living in the Berkshires and beyond.

Other states facing “out of market” channel losses include Connecticut, California, Nevada, and Nebraska. Many of the affected stations were dropped as Charter upgraded its cable systems to all-digital television, perhaps counting on subscriber confusion amidst other changes to the cable system.

Barrett on Charter: “Greed”

The loss of local stations while rapidly increasing the surcharge for those stations has some people calling foul.

Massachusetts State Rep. John Barrett III (D-North Adams) called it “greed.” Charter mandates the Broadcast TV Fee be paid by all video customers, including those on “price locked” promotions. By breaking the fee out of the cost of the cable television package, Charter Spectrum gets to advertise packages to new and returning customers at a low cost, only to deliver bill shock when customers discover the surcharge, along with equipment and franchise fees, that collectively increases their total monthly bill.

As the second largest cable company in the country, Charter is estimated to be collecting an extra $211 million annually from its first increase in November 2018 and $391 million annually from the latest increase now taking effect. Together, that amounts to $602 million annually in new revenue starting in March. Charter will not disclose exactly how much of this money is paid to each local television station.

Charter also has a habit of boosting its set-top box equipment fees about $1 a month per box each year — an increase we are likely to see later this year, and the company already slightly increased prices for internet service late last year.

Charter executives told shareholders on its most recent quarterly results conference call that the company’s revenue increased 4.9% in 2018 to $43.6 billion. Combining that extra revenue with a $1.9 billion cut in upgrades for 2019 will allow the company to focus on additional share buybacks, increased payouts to Charter shareholders, and debt reduction.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

Epix, Dropped from Some Cable Company Bundles, Launches Direct-to-Consumer Package

Phillip Dampier February 13, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Epix, the newest premium movie channel on the block, is giving up on exclusive pay television distribution and has launched a new $5.99/mo direct-to-consumer subscription service, beating anticipated services from AT&T WarnerMedia and Disney.

Epix Now streaming subscribers will have access to “thousands of movies” and original series, with full download availability and a growing catalog of titles available for 4K/Ultra HD streaming.

Epix, now wholly owned by MGM, has struggled to attract subscribers from its traditional cable and satellite TV partners, as consumers ditch premium channels to reduce their bill or drop cable TV service altogether. Charter Communications recently dropped Epix from Spectrum’s bundled pay television tier, now requiring customers to buy the network a-la-carte, likely resulting in a dramatic loss of subscribers.

Epix Now is currently available with a 7-day free trial on Apple TV, as well as iOS and Android phones and tablets, and is expected to arrive soon for Roku and Amazon Fire TV owners. The service is also sold through The Roku Channel, but will shortly be transitioned to a standalone app on that platform.

Launched in October 2009, Epix began as a partnership between MGM, Lionsgate, and Viacom. It was known for airing movies more quickly after leaving theaters than its competitors. But the network has been limited by a lack of exclusivity to first-run content from larger studios. Lionsgate largely lost interest in Epix after acquiring competing premium movie service Starz in mid-2016. A year later, Viacom made it known it wanted to exit the venture to concentrate on Showtime, its primary pay television network, and use the sale proceeds to pay down Viacom’s high debt load.

Democratic Lawmaker in Maine Ditches Her Seat to Accept Lucrative Lobbyist Job At Charter

Phillip Dampier February 13, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

DeChant

Maine taxpayers will cover the costs of a special election to fill a state legislative seat just four months after the November 2018 election, allowing the current officeholder to accept a lucrative position as a top regional lobbyist at Charter Communications.

Rep. Jennifer DeChant (D-Bath) vacated her seat representing House District 52, one she has held since 2012. In November 2018, she won re-election for her fourth term with 70 percent of the vote.

“I remain deeply grateful for the support of the people of Bath who made this experience one to treasure,” DeChant said in a statement. “While I remain committed to public service, right now it is time to focus on this transition.”

That transition will take her through the revolving door from Maine’s state legislature to Charter’s manager of government affairs and community relations for the northeast region, based in Portland. DeChant’s new job will involve lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the cable operator, which is Maine’s largest. DeChant said she made the decision based on what was best for her family.

“This new role makes it impossible to continue to fulfill my responsibilities as State Representative of HD52,” DeChant said. “Since I cannot continue to serve what would be my last term due to term limits, I must resign my seat effective Feb. 1, 2019.”

Maine, like other Northern New England states, suffers from ongoing rural broadband challenges. Consolidated Communications, formerly FairPoint, provides DSL in many smaller communities, with the rest of the region split between Comcast and Charter Spectrum for cable service in larger towns and cities.

Comcast Moving Away from Customer Retention Discounts for Cable TV

Phillip Dampier February 11, 2019 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

Despite the growing impact of cord-cutting, Comcast is following companies like Charter Spectrum by cutting back customer retention discounts that savvy subscribers negotiate to keep their cable bill reasonable. Despite losing more than 344,000 cable television customers in 2018, almost twice as many as it lost in 2017, Comcast has lost interest in cutting prices to keep customers.

Traditionally, customers using the word “cancel” with a customer service representative would quickly be offered deeply discounted service if they agreed to stay. Customers willing to stand their ground in tough negotiations with the cable company could win promotional pricing indefinitely, often saving several hundred dollars a year without losing channels or services. In 2016, after Charter Communications completed its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge vowed to impose “pricing discipline” on Time Warner Cable’s “Turkish bazaar of promotional deals” after Charter took control of the company.

Rutledge called out the ‘madness’ of offering customers fire sale prices on internet and television service at a MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in May 2017.

“Time Warner wanted to make a video number, and there were data packages that cost less if you took video than if you didn’t,” Rutledge said. “And a lot of those were churning out. And a lot of them were basic-only. So on the margin, at the end – in the last year, I think they were selling 40% of their connects as basic-only. [TWC had] 90,000 different promotional offers, many of them deeply discounted and piled on top of each other.”

Rutledge said Time Warner Cable represented the worst of an industry practice that gave unprecedented power to customers to get what they wanted, at least for awhile.

“You’d call in, bargain … And so there’s a lot of that out there. And they’re also exploding packages. Meaning, at the end of the term, they go back to full price,” Rutledge complained.

Rutledge called an end to negotiations by offering customers the opportunity of keeping their current package, but gradually raising it to a price that was often higher than Spectrum’s own non-negotiable packages and pricing. Regardless of what package a customer chose, it was a win for Charter because regular pricing ensured the company was making money either way.

Comcast has apparently been won over by Rutledge’s message to the industry and is now gradually moving in a similar direction.

Strauss

Matt Strauss, executive vice president of XFINITY Services, told Business Insider Comcast will now attempt to keep and win back its cord-cutting customers not by discounting prices, but by creating much smaller cable TV packages with fewer channels — a practice known as slimming down packages into “skinny bundles.” Comcast also plans to stop pushing customers into its “best value” triple-play packages of television, phone, and internet services, understanding many customers have no interest in some of those services.

“Our strategy is very focused on segmentation and getting more sophisticated in putting together the right video offering for the right customer at the right time in their life,” Strauss said, not by offering deep discounts on bloated packages (including a landline or hundreds of unwanted TV channels) that would reduce profitability.

Charter is already offering an ultra-slim, a-la-carte local TV package combining Music Choice with the customer’s pick of 10 national cable channels for $21.99 a month. The package is targeted to those with internet-only service and is accessed through a Roku set-top box. DVR service is available, if a customer was willing to pay a steep DVR service and box rental fee.

Comcast’s new strategy will market internet packages that include the added-cost option of a super-slim TV package of local channels and a handful of cable networks.

Strauss disagrees with some industry pundits who have suggested cable companies are planning to abandon selling cable television altogether in favor of internet-only service.

“We continue to be very bullish on video, but you’re just going to see us be more focused on how we go to market with video,” Strauss said.

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