We Are Not Impressed By New York City's Proposed Cable Consumer Bill Of Rights

New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson has proposed tying a Cable Consumer Bill of Rights into the 10-year franchise renewals Time Warner and Cablevision are expected to sign later this year. The proposal would force cable operators to disclose information about their expenses and service goals—which sounds nice and important on paper—but wastes an unrivaled opportunity to end the cable operators’ most hated practices.

The major provisions of the “Cable Consumer Bill of Rights” are:

    1. Customer Service Transparency

  • Cable companies will be required to collect and report detailed information about consumer complaints, and to follow-up with complaining consumers within 30 days to ensure their problems have been resolved
  • Companies must also collect and report detailed information about service outages by borough and community district, and submit a quarterly Plan of Correction for communities that are routinely subject to service outages
  • Companies must also improve meaningful consumer disclosure; including providing consumers with a full and accurate list of all service tiers, sub-tiers and channel offerings for their franchise area
  • Cable operators must provide convenient service centers that are easily accessible by mass transit. We recommend one service center for every 500,000 customers served
  • Ensures privacy protection for the customer which prohibits the cable providers from sharing data on customer’s internet usage and television viewing habits
  • 2. Cable Rate Transparency

  • Cable companies must provide needed transparency about their cable rates so that consumers know what percentage of each bill is allocated to:
  • Cost of content, capital expenditures, system maintenance, administrative expenses and profit
  • Independent programmers affiliated / non-affiliated with cable or broadcasting companies
  • 3. Independent Arbitration

  • Create an independent arbitration system to help cable companies and independent programmers efficiently resolve disputes over access, rather than denying consumer access to popular programming. (This mechanism would avoid the type of blackouts that consumers have experienced such as when Yankees and Mets programming were not available to many cable subscribers for lengthy periods of time
  • 4. Annual Cable Consumer Report Card

  • Cable companies must publish and distribute an annual Cable Consumer Report Card so that consumers can easily:
  • identify their cable company’s performance over the previous year,
  • access cost and service information,
  • view improvements that have been made and service outages that have occurred, and
  • view complaint ratios by community board
  • The availability of a report card as well as where to obtain the information (web site, phone number) must be included in all promotional materials issued by the providers
  • This annual report must also disclose the existence of exclusive contracts that cable companies make with Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs), which prohibit residents from choosing among cable providers

We love disclosure. Disclosing costs and service goals is nice and good, and always makes reading our bills that much more interesting, but ultimately, disclosure amounts only to words on a page.

Information in New York City’s monopolistic marketplace leads to anger and frustration, but not action. Say a consumer finds out that their monthly cable bill is $145 plus 3 squids because their building signed an exclusive contract with Time Warner, who allocates 99% of those funds (including the squids) to shareholders, and not infrastructure improvements. What’s the consumer supposed to do? Cancel their service and go with…. right, nobody.

The franchise renewal represents the city’s best shot at forcing cable operators to meet strict customer service goals. New York can look to Montgomery County’s franchise agreement with Comcast for inspiration. Under that agreement, Comcast agreed to:

  • Answer the phone within 30 seconds and transfer the customer to a live human in an additional 30 seconds.
  • Fix service interruptions within 24 hours if no work is needed inside the home, and 3 days if access to the home is required.
  • Provide a 10% per day credit if the technician is unable to repair the connection during a scheduled service appointment.

It’s not like Time Warner or Cablevision are about to leave New York City if we demand decent customer service. Hell, if Montgomery County can negotiate with Comcast, you’d think New York might have just an ounce of leverage.

The franchise can’t be signed without the approval of the Franchise Concession and Review Committee. The Mayor, Comptroller, and Borough Presidents should stand up for New Yorkers and write a real Cable Consumer Bill of Rights, one that will provide the level of customer service all New Yorkers deserve.

And then use that agreement to extract even stricter standards from Verizon.

Comptroller Thompson Unveils “Cable Consumer Bill Of Rights (Press Release) [NYC Comptroller]
(Photo: Dr. Hemmert)