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Spectrum Combats Cord Cutting With Spectrum TV Essentials: $14.99 for 60 Streamed Networks

Phillip Dampier February 20, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

In a move that clearly signals cord-cutting is taking a toll on Spectrum cable television, Charter Communications today unveiled a new streaming TV service priced to compete with “over the top (OTT)” streaming services like YouTube TV and DirecTV Now.

“Spectrum TV Essentials” will offer a package of 60 national cable networks for $14.99 a month, when the streaming service debuts in March. The lineup avoids costly cable channels focused on sports and will include no local channels.

“Spectrum TV Essentials is a OTT offering designed to provide Spectrum internet-only customers a new low-price, high-value video option,” said Charter CEO Tom Rutledge. “As we began to assemble the rights for this new video service, we received great enthusiasm and encouragement from these key programming partners, who share our view and embrace creating an innovative video offering we believe will resonate with our internet customers.”

Remarkably, one of Charter’s first programming partners for the newest slimmed-down cable TV package is Viacom, notorious for its bouquet of high-priced cable networks. Viacom has been so insistent on regular rate increases and forced bundling of multiple Viacom-owned cable networks, some cable systems like Cable One dropped all Viacom networks from their lineups just a few years ago.

A management change at Viacom apparently included a new willingness to combat cord-cutting.

“Viacom shared its strong belief and research that suggests there is a large untapped opportunity for a low-priced, entertainment-only bundle unencumbered by the high cost of broadcast retransmission consent fees and expensive sports programming,” Rutledge noted.

The 60-channel lineup is heavy on content from Discovery Networks, Viacom, Hallmark, and AMC. News junkies will be unhappy to find CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are not on the lineup, although lesser-watched BBC World News, Bloomberg, and NewsmaxTV are there.

The full lineup:

A&E, AMC, American Heroes Channel, Animal Planet, AXS TV, BBC America, BBC World News, BET, BET Her, BET Jams, BET Soul, Bloomberg, Cheddar, CLEO TV, CMT, CMT Music, Comedy Central, Cooking Channel, Destination America, Discovery, Discovery Family, Discovery Life, DIY, Food Network, FYI, Game Show Network, Hallmark Channel, Hallmark Drama, Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, HDNet Movies, HGTV, HISTORY, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime, Lifetime Movie Network, Logo, MotorTrend Network, MTV, MTV2, MTV Classic, MTV Live, MTVU, NewsmaxTV, Newsy, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Nick Music, NickToons, Outdoor Channel, OWN, Paramount Network, Science Channel, Sundance TV, Teen Nick, TLC, Travel Channel, TV Land, VH1, Viceland, The Weather Channel and WEtv.

There will be no DVR option at launch, but Charter is reportedly testing cloud DVR technology for introduction later.

“We’re thrilled to expand and deepen our relationship with Charter. They share both our commitment to the evolution of the the Pay TV ecosystem as well as our understanding of the changing needs of consumers,” said Bob Bakish, Viacom CEO. “As the video marketplace continues to segment across price points and offerings, we believe a high quality, lower priced option for internet-only subscribers is very important. We’re excited to have our global brands as part of Spectrum TV Essentials at launch.”

Access will initially be available on the desktop through SpectrumTV.com and Spectrum’s Roku app. The service will also be available on iOS and Android phones and tablets, Apple TV, Xbox One, Amazon Kindle Fire, and Samsung Smart TVs.

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.

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.

Comcast Passes 30 Million Customers, Still Growing Broadband Subscribers

Comcast has passed 30 million customer relationships, mostly from adding new broadband customers that continue to disconnect from phone company DSL service.

In the last quarter, Comcast added 363,000 new broadband customers, a number the company calls its best third quarter subscriber add in 10 years, growing revenue by almost 10%.

High-speed residential and business internet service are among Comcast’s highest-margin businesses. Combining fast growth with sky-high profitability, Comcast boasted its broadband revenue is now the largest contributor to the cable company’s continued overall growth, reaching $4.3 billion this quarter, an increase of 9.6%.

“We have added over 1.2 million net new residential broadband customers in the last 12 months, including 334,000 net additions in the third quarter,” said Michael J. Cavanagh, Comcast’s chief financial officer. “Our offering is resonating with customers, as our consistent innovation and investment in our network has enabled us to stay ahead of customer expectations for not just high speeds, but also wall-to-wall Wi-Fi coverage and the ability to manage the increasing number of devices attached to their home networks.”

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts praised Comcast’s achievement of rolling out gigabit download speed to more customers than any other telecommunications company in the country.

“Our 1 gigabit internet is now available to nearly all of the 58 million homes and businesses passed in our footprint,” Roberts said. “This is the fastest deployment of gigabit speeds to the most locations in the country by anybody.”

Roberts claims Comcast will continue to build many of its future products and services around its broadband platform.

“We are investing to harness the capacity and capabilities of our network and deliver innovative differentiated experiences, which we believe gives us a long runway for further growth,” Roberts told investors on a morning conference call. “We are competing really well in residential broadband by offering customers the fastest speeds, most reliable Wi-Fi coverage in the home, and industry-leading Wi-Fi management and controls. We’ve branded our holistic broadband product as xFi, and continue to add new features, and we’re rolling out our xFi gateways and pods to further enhance the service.”

Comcast’s growing reliance on broadband products comes at the same time it faces additional cable television cord-cutting activity.

Cavanagh blamed online video streaming competitors like Sling TV and DirecTV Now for poaching its “low value” subscribers, admitting Comcast lost at least 95,000 net residential video customers in the last three months.

FCC Seeks to Strip Broadband Oversight, Net Neutrality Authority from Local Governments

Phillip Dampier September 25, 2018 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Video 3 Comments

The Federal Communications Commission moved Tuesday to formally strip local franchise authorities from regulating cable companies’ non-video services, prevent town and city governments from enforcing their own net neutrality policies, and limit the amount of obligations cable companies owe communities in return for winning and keeping a cable television franchise agreement.

The Commission announced a notice of proposed rulemaking that most observers claim is a mere formality before the Republican majority formally adopts the proposal in what is being seen as a clear and sweeping victory for the cable television industry.

Under the FCC proposal, local franchising authorities that issue franchise agreements allowing cable television companies to provide service in a community will see their powers of oversight and regulation significantly cut, threatening existing agreements that require cable operators to wire public schools, libraries, and local government offices and offer certain other services, excluding Public, Educational, and Government access channels.

Some franchise agreements require cable operators to maintain a certain number of local cable customer service offices, support local infrastructure projects by placing fiber or service cables in shared conduits, offer services or scholarships to communities in need, and provide near-universal service availability in neighborhoods without regard to income. While communities would be allowed to continue requiring these extra benefits, the cost could be deducted from franchise fee payments made by cable operators to local governments. Currently, franchise fees are capped at a maximum of 5% of gross revenue, although cable companies and corporate-funded interest groups like FreedomWorks and Free State Foundation argue “in kind” required contributions found in some franchise agreements allow cities and towns to exceed that amount.

Cooper

The FCC also reiterated its intention to limit local franchising authorities to only regulating cable television services, disallowing them from writing rules, regulations, or requirements that govern a cable system’s non-television services, most notably telephone and broadband service. While some at the FCC suggest this ruling allows broadband and voice services to remain unregulated as intended, analysts suggest the real impact of this declaration is to lay a legal foundation to prohibit communities from imposing local net neutrality requirements on cable broadband services designed to replace the federal net neutrality rules that were vacated by the Republican majority on the Commission earlier this year.

“Congress has designated information services such as broadband for non-regulated or light-touch treatment,” said Seth Cooper, senior fellow from the conservative group Free State Foundation. “The Commission’s proposed rulemaking clarifies that local governments cannot leverage their cable franchising authority to regulate broadband services. This will help shore up important limits on local government regulation set out in the Communications Act.”

After passage, cable operators could complain to the FCC about requirements imposed by local governments or regulatory bodies requiring them to honor basic net neutrality principles. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has repeatedly voiced his view that only the federal government should be allowed to regulate the internet, and he is prepared to challenge state and local laws that attempt to create an end run around the decision to eliminate federal net neutrality protections.

“What we’re going to do is take a look on a case-by-case basis at each state law and determine the right course, but at a broad level, the internet is inherently an interstate service,” Pai told CNBC in June. “We don’t [want] every one of the 50 states and however many local jurisdictions to have a bite of the regulatory apple.”

The FCC has also asked for input on extending its authority to overrule similar franchising requirements on the state level as well, a significant expansion of the FCC’s authority that Mr. Pai himself has questioned when his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, attempted to override state laws deterring or forbidding public/municipal broadband networks.

“In taking this step, the FCC usurps fundamental aspects of state sovereignty. And it disrupts the balance of power between the federal government and state governments that lies at the core of our constitutional system of government,” Pai complained in 2015. “What is clear, however, is that the FCC does not have the legal authority to override the decisions made by Tennessee and North Carolina. Under the law, it is up to the people of those two states and their elected representatives—not the Commission—to decide whether and to what extent to allow municipalities to operate broadband projects.”

But in Pai’s view, it is not up to those and other states to decide for themselves what type of level playing field will be provided to internet users if a sovereign state wishes to define those terms in the public interest.

FCC’s Ajit Pai talks net neutrality on CNBC in June 2018 and is skeptical of state efforts to preserve net neutrality rules, saying the internet “has to be regulated by the federal government.” (10:48)

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