Have you looked closely at your cable or satellite TV bill lately? If so, you may have noticed a programming fee called "broadcast TV and regional sport." For Charter and Time Warner Cable subscribers (now one company) that mysterious charge is $8.75 a month.
You might think it's a government-mandated fee, but it's not. "It's a sneaky way to raise your cable bill without adding it to the advertised price," says Daniel Hattis, an attorney representing a set of consumers who are suing Charter/Time Warner and Comcast, in separate actions.
A common (and sketchy) practice
Cable companies say the suspect charges are used to recover fees they pay for certain content. That may sound reasonable, but it actually makes no sense. Cable providers pay networks and production companies for the rights to carry their programming during the normal course of business, according Hattis. The current practice is like a movie theater advertising tickets that cost $12 each and then tacking on a $2 fee at the box office to cover the cost of a seat.
Only two companies are targets of the recent lawsuits, but the practice is common across the pay TV industry, Hattis says. Companies that charge similar fees include AT&T (in both its U-Verse and DirecTV offerings), Verizon Fios, CenturyLink, and Wow, a regional provider in the Midwest and Southeast, according to Hattis and a quick Web search.
Cable companies can charge whatever they want, even though they already boosted prices well above the rise in the cost of living. The problem with these fees, however, is that they aren't included in the advertised costs of service. Airlines used to do the same thing until regulators made them post full prices of tickets.
The concept is also deceptive. According to the suit against Charter, customer agents told subscribers the fees are mandated by the government. Cable and wireless customers do pay a number of fees ordered by regulators, but the "broadcast and regional sports fee" isn't one of them.
How to avoid fake cable or satellite programming fees
The common practice of forced arbitration makes it even harder for consumers to fight back. Buried inside the agreements you sign when you start service is a clause saying you waive your right to sue and will accept binding arbitration if a dispute should arise. Time Warner lets new subscribers opt out of that clause, but only if they do so within 30 days of signing up. Comcast has an opt-out provision as well.
Hattis says a loophole in Charter's arbitration clause lets subscribers sue for so-called "injunctive relief" but not monetary damages, so the plaintiffs aren't seeking money, only a court order to kill the fees.
You probably didn't notice those arbitration-related clauses when you signed up for cable service, so here's a page where you can opt out of arbitration if you're a Comcast customer, and here's one for Charter/Time Warner.
I reached out to a number of cable companies for comments on the suits but haven't heard back. However, Charter sent the statement to ArsTechnica.com: "We provide simple to understand bills and want our customers to understand what they are paying for, including the skyrocketing cost of broadcast channels."