Time Warner Cable Customers Sue Over CBS Blackout

survivorIt’s two weeks into the Time Warner Cable vs. CBS staring contest and millions of TV viewers around the country still have no access to the network or its premium counterpart Showtime. That means it’s apparently time to call in the lawyers.

Three TWC customers in L.A. — one of the largest markets to be hit by the blackout — filed suit against the cable giant earlier this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging breach of contract, unfair business practices, and unjust enrichment because TWC has continued to collect full subscription rates while not providing CBS, Showtime, and a handful of other cable channels.

The plaintiffs, who seek class-action status for the suit, say that TWC has previously “utilized Showtime as a significant incentive to induce customer subscriptions of general cable services through advertisement and marketing materials,” but has now pulled the plug on that premium channel — and its associated offerings like The Movie Channel — nationwide.

TWC has, at least temporarily, replaced Showtime and The Movie Channel with Starz and Encore, respectively. But, contends the lawsuit, “The courtesy replacement programming is not a reasonable substitute for programing blacked out, as it does not include a fungible offering of programs relative to CBS and Showtime.”

Plaintiffs seek unspecified refunds to customers affected by the blackouts.

There is a huge roadblock to the plaintiffs in this case being able to proceed with their case. Like a growing number of companies, Time Warner Cable recently added a mandatory binding arbitration clause to its terms of service. This clause requires that all customer disputes be resolved independently via a third-party arbitrator instead of in a courtroom. Moreover, the TWC agreement bans customers with similar disputes from banding together to sue the company as a class.

Considering that the U.S. Supreme Court has given its blessing to such arbitration clauses, it’s unlikely that this case will get very far. Which is a shame, because class-action suits are one of the few ways in which consumers can use their numbers as leverage to effect change in the way businesses deal with customers.