Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 36: Cable Providers

The information is this post may not entirely pertain to television viewing, but the policies of these companies do of course have an enormous effect in that regard. And note: that “cable providers” includes satellite companies, as well.

Before I begin, I would like to direct you to a 2012 video from Extremely Decent Films. I trust most of you have seen this video, but I want to show it because its humor is rooted in truth. It covers most of my complaints about cable companies and fits for dish providers, as well. (Warning: The video contains curse words.)

Three Major Complaints about Cable Providers

The first point about these companies made in the video deals with cable companies’ (namely Comcast and Time Warner) “unwarranted ripoffs.” These ripoffs come in at least three immediate forms: The horrible channel packages, the Internet services, and the hidden fees.

Yes, there are hidden fees [which the video didn’t get into]. Some of these fees can include an activation fee, an installation fee (which is separate), and a deactivation fee. Verizon FiOS has perhaps the most ridiculous fee at $360, but that is broken down at $15/month.

(Another thing users have to deal with is the overall difficulty of cancelling services. In 2014, a call between Ryan Block and a Comcast representative was recorded. That partly inspired a startup to make that process easier for $5. However, AirPaper was inundated with requests. It still is.)

Second is the selection of channels. Cable (and dish) companies became notorious for offering horrible packages all around. Some services could offer over 500 channels, but not all at once. Basic channel packages could exclude most of the channels viewers want; the consumers would have to pay an arm and a leg just to get those.

Specifically, some of the channels offered in the basic packages really suck yet they’re given before stuff I would want, like HBO. Starz and Encore for example, may be two “premium” channels one gets at base prices, but they have poor selections of movies.

To be fair, that was largely due to media companies. They insisted that cable providers carry all of their channels and not just one.

There was a change in 2015. Verizon FiOS became the first major company to provide something close to an a la carte service. Customers would be allowed to opt in and out of channels.

Third, the cable providers may also serve as Internet providers. I know from experience that the Internet service provided could be slow as a snail, particularly compared to speeds in Japan. That is not the worst of it, as I will explain later.

The Truth about Those Contracts

The most important point made in the video is the fact that cable providers have oligopolies. These companies are allowed exclusive rights in certain markets, so customers are afforded no other viable choice — other than dish, which can be expensive to install in the first place. These exclusive deals are likely the greatest contributor to the language of cable contracts, which include: arbitration clauses to prevent customers from suing the companies, clauses for short dispute and opt-out periods, and indemnity clauses where consumers would have to pay for any legal fees if the companies are sued. There is little recourse for customers to deal with an interruption of service or subpar services.

Now, here is where the machinations of the cable and dish providers affect how and if shows are viewed. The companies have to deal with local and cable networks constantly. This includes working on subscription fees, among other things. This means their contracts will determine what we see and don’t see.

Time Warner Cable in particular is notorious for even fighting with national networks — which have affiliates in local stations — over rates. Some examples were the threat of blacking out ABC in 2000, the dispute with Viacom in 2006, and the temporary blackout of CBS and its affiliates in 2013.

Dish network has had numerous disputes as well, including those with CBS/Viacom (2004), Disney (2009), and Fox Entertainment Group (2010).

One notable example of both cable and satellite companies delaying the launch of a network is the plight of the WWE Network. The original plan was for it to be offered on cable and dish in 2012, but that was blocked for two years. There was more trouble as the WWE offered to allow subscribers to view Pay-Per-View events for free.

Staying on sports, cable and dish providers may have deals with teams and sports leagues. These deals allow the companies to show certain games that viewers cannot see on regular television, even if those viewers reside in the same markets as those teams. Ask someone who has paid to view the sports network of their team through TWC about how there is no guarantee that they will have a working channel. Ask a DirectTV subscriber how some games offered on the Sunday NFL ticket will be cut off if it suddenly shown on most local affiliates.

Interruptions by Cable Providers

Cable providers may have their own channels, but they still cut into other ones with their promos. Sometimes, they co-opt certain cable networks’ broadcasts just to show their own low-budget news breaks. Don’t they have their own channel to show this garbage?

Additionally, there are roadblocks on websites owned by the cable companies. The sites may show episodes of programs one might miss on the first showing, but there can be hidden fees tied to that. This is true of TWC, which has blocked some HBO episodes and Adult Swim episodes from non-subscribers online. (Subscribers may have to pay an extra fee to view those episodes.)

About Net Neutrality

In 2012 and again in 2014, net neutrality made the news. In 2012, many Internet users were implored to contact the Federal Communications Commission in order to fight SOPA and PIPA.

What were these bills about? SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) was raised in the House of Representatives and it was proposed in order to block the online sale and distribution of pirated, counterfeit, and otherwise copyright-infringing materials. The Attorney General would be given authority to contact Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) and get them to block American citizen’s access to infringing websites. In addition, search engines like Google would have to delete the links to the sites. PIPA (Protect IP Act) was the Senate’s companion bill.

The bills were heinous because of their implications. Not only could ISP’s block websites, but those websites could also have their funding blocked. Credit card companies would be blocked from cooperating with entire websites even if only one part of it was in violation of the law. This would effectively blacklist the sites. And there was of course the possibility that ISP’s would abuse the law.

Finally, since cable providers may even provide internet services, they can decide whether customers view certain streaming sites. The increased use of streaming services like Netflix — and any other startup like it — should be watched closely.

In 2014, the issue was more about ISP’s controlling service speeds. They wanted to have separate speeds and have consumers pay for higher speeds. This already affected streaming sites like Netflix as they were being throttled by ISP’s. Any other startup company like that would like to improve on Netflix’s streaming model would be in danger, too.

They are all players in the erosion of net neutrality, and sometimes on opposite sides. Comcast is known for its stance on charging streaming sites for the use of broadband. Verizon was against net neutrality. Google unsurprisingly was for it.

The bills received huge blows in 2014. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a surprising turn, talked of the lack of competition Americans have with ISP’s. He even blocked what would have been disastrous merger between Comcast and Time Warner.

However, even with these decisions, members of Congress will continue to make efforts to affect net neutrality.

Streaming sites aren’t really safe from politics, either. Hulu is a joint venture with NBCUniversal, Fox Broadcasting Corp., and Disney—ABC Entertainment Group, so I am leery of it. As fewer people rely on cable to view programming, it may cost more for people to even have a working internet connection, let alone a faster one. Prices for the regular cable and dish services are already high enough. I wouldn’t put it past the cable providers to block the competition or critics, as well.

Next, up is the end of this series.


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