The 115th Congress only just came into town and got properly sworn in and down to business on Tuesday, but returning members aren’t wasting any time picking their favorite projects back up. And so, only a few days into the new year, a pair of senators are turning on Charter and Comcast to ask what, exactly, those two think they’re doing with their pricing schemes.
That’s what Sens. Claire McCaskill (MO) and Rob Portman (OH) want to know. In a pair of letters sent this week, McCaskill and Portman are asking both Comcast and Charter — which now owns Time Warner Cable — to answer questions about the “misleading placement of fees” on customers’ bills as well as “inadequate advertising disclosure” for promotional pricing.
McCaskill is the same Senator who recorded her call with her provider in which she tried to have an $8 “protection” fee she never asked for removed from her monthly bill.
That eventually led to a Senate subcommittee hearing in which the cable industry repeatedly embarrassed itself talking about fees, billing errors, and general bad practices.
The letters are a follow-up to the hearing, with Sen. Portman — the sitting chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations — and Sen. McCaskill — its ranking (minority) member — asking both Comcast and Charter to answer the questions they asked, already, and stop dithering.
The letters [Comcast PDF, Charter PDF] are largely similar. In both, Sens. McCaskill and Portman point out that “no federal, state, or local government levies the ‘broadcast TV surcharge’ or ‘regional sports network fee,'” which are charged entirely at the provider’s discretion.
For Charter, the senators then ask if the company has made good yet on removing the line item entirely, as it promised in June it planned to do after completing its merger with Time Warner Cable, or whether at least the fees now get a “more honest display.” Likewise, for Comcast, the senators want to know if the fees are placed in online bills and service orders in the same section where they exist in paper bills — labeled “other,” and not “taxes.”
The senators also asked both companies to clarify how they disclose the significant bill increases a customer may face when their promotional billing period ends after 12 or 24 months. In June, the letters say, Sen. McCaskill asked every company present whether it discloses the non-promotional price of service in advertising “as conspicuously as it did the limited promotional price.” Neither Comcast nor Charter answered this question adequately, and so the senators are asking again.
Both companies have also been asked to “provide a briefing for Subcommittee staff on any changes” to advertising or billing practices undertaken since the June hearing that increase cost transparency to consumers. The senators also request that both Charter and Comcast send “recent reproductions” of order confirmations, online bills, and paper bills that show the broadcast and regional sports fees on them, so the committee can determine for itself if the placement is misleading ir not.
Both companies are currently the targets of (separate) lawsuits about these fees. Comcast is being targeted in federal court in California over the “Broadcast TV Fee” and “Regional Sports Fee” — now up to $12 per month, combined — it appends to every TV customer’s bill.
A similar lawsuit against Charter, also filed in California, accuses Charter (and Time Warner Cable) of illegally falsely advertising much lower rates than it actually charges, because of those fees.