How pay-TV industry fails to connect with customers

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Right now, pay-TV’s lobbyists are swarming Washington in a cynical campaign to convince Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to reform the nation’s video marketplace. Their goal is narrow and self-serving: to eliminate the free market retransmission consent system that allows local broadcasting to remain competitive with pay-TV behemoths.

To hear the pay-TV lobbyists tell it, retransmission consent is “broken,” leading to programming disputes that result in scores of broadcast TV “blackouts” for America’s cable and satellite TV subscribers.  

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The facts, however, tell a very different story.

In the first six months of 2014, the number of actual programming disruptions involving broadcast TV stations total five, and four of those have been resolved.

Meanwhile, in that same time period, pay-TV and Internet service outages caused by lousy service or a passing thunderstorm totaled ... wait for it ... more than 3,000! That’s right — failed network reliability, poor customer service and bad weather have caused 600 times more pay-TV service disruptions than retransmission consent disputes. And that’s only for the top five pay-TV companies. There are likely thousands more service failures to date this year if you were to include all cable and satellite TV companies in the calculation of the prevalence of network disruptions.

Need proof? Check out the website Downdetector.com, which documents the service failures of more than 250 companies operating in the U.S. and catalogs the frustration that pay-TV subscribers endure on a daily basis.

So let’s do a quick recap: 3,000 service failures caused by bad weather or other incidents, versus five blackouts involving broadcast TV programming disputes. And the cable and satellite TV industry is claiming that it is retransmission consent that needs to be fixed? The pay-TV industry should examine its poor network performance and stop throwing stones at others when they live in a glass house full of customer service horrors.

Today, the average U.S. consumer pays upwards of $130 per month for a bundled pay-TV/broadband service package, while suffering from outages and service degradation with no explanation nor refunds on monthly bills. Consumer frustration over pay-TV service is reaching a boiling point as providers continue to rake in billions of dollars in annual profits. 

All the while, cable and satellite TV lobbyists play “hide the ball,” and try desperately to distract policymakers’ attention away from legitimate questions regarding service reliability.

We at TVfreedom.org agree that reforming our country’s video marketplace would benefit consumers, but we differ with the pay-TV lobbyists on how best to modernize regulations governing the U.S. video marketplace.

We seek holistic reform based on a broader congressional examination of the copyright and communications laws impacted by recent advances in technology, rather than a narrowly focused, pay-TV-driven inquiry into retransmission consent. This regime has functioned appropriately and effectively for years, while ensuring that local TV broadcasters receive fair compensation for their popular and most-watched programming. Now, pay-TV is looking to make “reforms” that would increase their skyrocketing profits and bring no economic relief to consumers.

The starting point for any reforms should be an examination of pay-TV’s truth in billing practices and shoddy customer service. This will help to guide new laws and regulations aimed at holding cable and satellite TV service providers accountable for reliability and high fees charged for pay-TV services. 

Last month Sen. Claire 

McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, announced that she will push for a new federal law aimed at bringing transparency and fairness to cable and satellite TV billing practices. 

We support McCaskill’s efforts and agree that consumers need protections from the confusing and deceptive billing practices of cable and satellite TV companies. This should be the true starting point for meaningful consumer-friendly reforms in the U.S. video marketplace.

Kenny is the director of public affairs for TVfreedom.org, a coalition of local broadcasters, community advocates, network TV affiliate associations and other independent organizations. He formerly served as press secretary at the FCC.