With their hidden fees, Internet metering and shape-shifting, don't put it past the cable company to bend you over and have their way with your 'box'
It’s a Tuesday night. You’re tired. You’ve had a long day at work and all you want to do is kick back on the couch pajama-stylez. You’ve got something carbonated to drink, something salty to crunch and the TV remote in hand.
Decisions, decisions. Your cable package gives you serious options. In fact, that handy box sitting atop the 'tube allows you to access hundreds of programs—in pore-magnifying detail—from all over the world. Sure, you support local businesses, watch your carbon footprint and buy groceries at the farmers market, but tonight, cheri, you’re an unabashed citizen of the world...
Wanna watch Iron Chef? Will that be the UK, American or original Japanese version? Music fan? Have your pick of dozens of American Idol-type shows, from Canadian Idol and Indonesian Idol to France’s Nouvelle Star and Germany’s Deutschland sucht den Superstar.
With the plethora of options and hypnotic clarity of high-def, it’s easy to forget the prices we pay to access all this programming. But the cable companies, no, they don’t forget. Bless their pointy little heads, they’ve got oodles of ways to get our money. And we fork over our dollars willingly.
But perhaps it’s time for “viewers like you” to start paying attention and questioning the system. Because increasingly the issue isn’t so much about how many porn channels you get; it's about your dignity.
Not only are service fees constantly going up, with one more ding here and another there, but your freedom to access information on the open web is also in jeopardy, as cable-slash-Internet providers rush to impose usage caps and throttle service.
Read on for seven ways the cable companies are screwing you... and me... and all of those people over there...
It's only a matter of time before Vancouver's hockey arena becomes Shaw/Telus Stadium. (Image: Flickr / Marbla123)
7. They keep re-branding civic landmarks
We can’t help but feel stupid when we don’t know the name of major buildings and monuments in our own city. But that’s what happens when our landmarks are re-branded with corporate monikers, and often without warning.
That’s how Science World and General Motors Place in Vancouver became “Telus World of Science” and “Rogers Arena,” and Toronto’s SkyDome was renamed the “Rogers Centre,” and Montreal’s Molson Centre, “Centre Bell.”
In early March, the naming rights to a soon-to-be-built arena in Quebec City were sold to the Quebecor media empire, which will not only name the new landmark but also procure a hockey team to play there.
In the United States, Washington, DC’s MCI Center was renamed “Verizon Center” for the American media conglomerate. And “Comcast Center” is now not only the name of an amphitheatre near Boston, Massachusetts, but also an arena in College Park, Maryland, and a 58-storey office tower in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
It’s not just locations: the companies themselves are continually consolidating and rebranding. CTVglobemedia bought CHUM Ltd, only then to become Bell Media; Canwest is now Shaw Media and Postmedia Group; and Cogeco bought up Corus Entertainment’s Quebec stations, leaving the rest of Corus to go solo.
Given the speed with which companies shift names, it’s not unlikely that the new Quebecor arena will be renamed something else within a few years. And, once again, we’ll all feel like idiots when we can’t remember what to call that big ugly building thingy where the dudes on the skates hit that rubber thingamajig.
Sure, that PVR can keep you caught up on all your "Young & the Restless" plotlines, but it'll cost you. (Image: Flickr / Shaymus22)
6. Connection fees and equipment charges
Depending on what kind of programming you want, the charges range. But the deal's basically the same between the different service providers. In Canada, Telus provides a useful case study:
Telus offers two television options to customers: The first is Optik TV, which has Microsoft-powered PVR capabilities enabling you to record up to three shows at once and 500+ channels, including 100 in high definition. To use Optik TV, you need to rent (for $10 or $15 a month) or buy (for $150 or $250) an HD box or HD PVR box, or you can use an Xbox 360 if you have or are willing to purchase one. You’ll also have to pay the $100 fee to have a technician set up Optik TV at your house. From there, the monthly packages start at $53 per month.
Telus Satellite TV, the other option for Canadian customers, requires either an HD receiver—$10 a month to rent, $199 to own—or an HD Personal Video Recorder—$15 a month or a whopping $499 to purchase. From there, customers must spend a minimum of $33 per month for programming.
That’s a lot of dough to lay down for the privilege of watching 18 minutes of advertising for every hour of television. Thank jebus you splurged and got the PVR… Fast. Forward.
5. Charging more, reducing service, increasing profits
Not sure if you’ve scanned the headlines recently, but in Canada, cable companies are charging us more:
"Rogers cuts Internet service without reducing prices" (July 23, 2010); "Rogers ramping up rates on March 1st" (January 13, 2011); "Shaw and Cogeco Cable raising rates effective April 1st" (February 4, 2011); and "Bell rumoured to be raising Internet prices in May" (February 7, 2011).
According to a September 8, 2010, article, "These corporations already earn a 25 percent profit margin amounting to almost $2 billion each year…" So why are they raising rates?
In the US, the story is much the same. Two years ago, The New York Times reported "Cable Prices Keep Rising, and Customers Keep Paying" (May 24, 2008). The author was right: two years later, consumers are still paying as headlines read: "In a Clash Over Cable, Consumers Lose" (January 6, 2010); "Why Cable is Going to Cost You Even More" (January 9, 2010) and "Cablevision to increase cable TV rates" (November 6, 2010.
Don't let the colourful peacock fool you. The NBC Universal/Comcast merger means less choice for consumers. (Image: Flickr / Divergence)
4. Media concentration
Dwayne Winseck, professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism, notes in The Toronto Star the similarity of Canadian media to "what takes place in oligarchic capitalist societies—think Russia and South America."
In Canada, "giant media enterprises are once again in vogue," he notes: just six companies—Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, Quebecor and Cogeco—control 60 percent of the cable market. (Customers may also see those same names appearing at the top of their cell phone bill.)
For consumers, a few big corporations controlling the supply of cable/Internet means these companies can set the prices as high as they like. As noted by Shea Sinnot of Vancouver-based pro-Internet advocacy group OpenMedia.ca, the "big six" have "frighteningly powerful influence" over Canada’s media landscape; because of their monopoly, they are able to "shape the speed, capacity, price, and technical and economic characteristics of the Internet."
Internet throttling and usage caps are just two examples of this power.
In the States, there are more than six companies calling the shots, but not many more. Comcast, DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner, Cox Communications, Charter, Verizon, and Cablevision are the largest media corporations, with about a dozen others offering a semblance of checks and balances.
"With little competition, cable companies can price-gouge consumers by repeatedly raising rates or can act as content gatekeepers," says the American media reform non-profit Free Press, referring to attempts by Internet providers to throttle service to promote partner web content (like, say, Facebook) and suppress independent sites (like, say, a newly invented social media platform that attempts to rival Facebook). "The current 'cable cartel' puts independent programmers and small cable operators at a disadvantage—and reduces consumer choice of programming."
For Canada’s southern neighbours, concentration of media ownership is getting worse by the minute. In January 2011, two of the US’s largest media providers, Comcast and NBC Universal, merged, provoking strong reactions from public interest experts that go far beyond worrying about price increases.
"Comcast’s proposed acquisition of NBC Universal poses a genuine threat to free expression and diversity of speech in our democratic society," Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, told The New York Times.
Headlines following the merger were borderline apocalyptic, reading "Airwaves Freedom Dying."
3. The upsell
Like a particularly savvy server at a yuppie Yaletown brewpub, cable companies are all about the upsell. But where our server presents only one or two options, the cable companies have bundles, packages and tickle-trunks full of different offerings, including four or five different Internet speeds—from Extreme Turbo to Your Grandmother’s Computer.
Customers are often required to make a binding decision when they first sign up, which means they can expect additional "administrative" fees if they want to change their plan later.
VIDEO: Here's a funny example of the upsell and consumer confusion, as applied to cell phones, from the IFC sketch comedy series "Portlandia."
The way things are going, it won't be long before you're paying for which websites you view. (Image: Flickr / BelieveKevin)
No one likes paying for "Cupcake Wars" when all they want is "Deadwood."
But even though we’ve figured out how to do amazing things like send mail instantly while flying through the air like a bird, we’re supposed to believe the cable companies still can’t offer us just the channels we want?
Let’s pick on Canada’s Shaw Cable for a bit. Shaw promises to "set up your TV the way you want." Starting with the basic digital television package for the introductory rate of $29.95 a month, adding any individual channels will cost you $2.95 a month, per channel. Or you can get two for $3.95, or seven channels for $7.95. The customer can choose which ones, but they have to pick seven for the deal to work. (Are there even seven channels worth watching?)
So if you only signed up for cable so you could watch HBO's "Treme," you're being screwed.
Then there are more expensive packages for premium programming. For either Movie Central or Super Channel, each of which packages together four movie channels, you can add $17 to your monthly bill. Like porn? You’re looking at a minimum of $22.95 extra.
If you are paying for extra services, it might be wise to keep a close eye on your bill. In February 2010, ABC News reported that some customers have found charges added to their bills for services they never requested.
1. Internet metering
Cable companies are no longer simply just providers of boob-tube connectivity; they’re also the ones doling out Internet access. And they're owned by the companies that provide phone service.
Canadian telecommunications companies have a long history of gouging customers, as Rick Mercer shows in this little gem:
True to form, in February 2011, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that large media corporations could "charge wholesalers that lease bandwidth... the same usage basis" the companies charge their own customers, less 15 percent.
The main concern for consumers is that the decision will likely render smaller Internet providers (that keep the Canadian cable oligarchy in check) uncompetitive, no longer able to offer "unlimited" plans. These small providers will either have to raise their rates, or go out of business.
"Without the right competitive pressures, usage-based billing threatens to choke off... innovative businesses and the benefits they can bring to Canadian consumers," Industry Minister Tony Clement told Reuters on March 1, 2011.
If going online costs more, then the recent Associated Press headline "Looking to cut cable bills? Online TV could help" will need more than a little revising. Many alternatives to cable television, like Netflix, Apple TV and a rumoured Amazon.com video streaming service all require the availability of cheap bandwidth.
Take back the Internet
We’re not stupid, and while it might take us a few months to start calling "GM Place" by its new name, we’re savvy to what cable companies are trying to do.
One way to fight back is to reject the service all together and return to life pre-"Jersey Shore," pre-AOL and pre-email (does that mean pre-Comic Sans too?). Yeah right...
Another way is to insist the CRTC not allow new Internet usage fees by signing OpenMedia.ca’s petition to Stop the Meter. Tell your federal representatives you support net neutrality while you're at it.
Otherwise, make sure you shop around, avoid long contracts and get your live-stream on as often as you can. Or… perhaps it’s time to get off the couch, pull on your going-out jeans and find some real life entertainment. We have some suggestions.
With reporting from Shawn Conner.
[Updated: 18 Mar 2011]