DirectTV Forgot To Stop Charging Customers For Channels That Were Blacked Out

from the whoopsie dept

As we've detailed for some time now, while contract blackouts have almost always been an annoyance in the cable television industry, they are becoming increasingly prevalent alongside the rise of cord-cutting. Normally when we discuss cable blackouts, the discussion revolves around the entirely predictable strategy by both the broadcaster and cable operator to blame one another, all while paying customers sit without the channels they're paying for. While annoying, that is usually the extent of our comments on the matter.

But DirectTV has forged a new path on how to handle broadcast blackouts. In Colorado, both DirectTV and Comcast were hit with a blackout of the Altitude Sports Network, the broadcaster for the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and more. ASN wanted, as per usual, higher fees for its broadcast rights. DirectTV and Comcast did not want to pay those higher fees. But, as part of a larger investigation into the fees Comcast and DirectTV assess their customers, the Colorado AG is looking into why DirectTV kept charging customers the regional sports fee for the channel it was no longer showing.

DirecTV and Comcast are being investigated by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who objects to the TV providers continuing to charge regional sports network (RSN) fees despite not providing one of the major regional sports networks. While Comcast is giving customers partial bill credits, DirecTV apparently hasn't done so.

Weiser sent letters to the AT&T-owned DirecTV and Comcast on October 23, asking why the companies kept charging RSN fees after they stopped providing the Altitude Sports network. The network broadcasts games played by the state's major professional basketball, hockey, and soccer teams (the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids, respectively). The AG's letters said that Comcast's and DirecTV's conduct "may constitute a deceptive trade practice under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act" and "may result in the imposition of civil penalties up to $20,000 per violation." The letters also said the AG is investigating other potentially misleading fees.

As noted, Comcast is trying now to make this right by offering partial refunds. DirectTV, at the time of this writing, apparently isn't trying to make this right at all. It's one thing to charge fee after fee in a complicated invoice constructed specifically so that paying customers have no clue what they're actually paying for, but to specifically continue to charge for a network that isn't even being broadcast at the time is especially sinister.

For what it's worth, the AG both gave DirectTV some time to respond with its plans. When DirectTV didn't bother to respond on time, it probably didn't do the company any favors with respect to the AG's interest in investigating further.

Weiser's office gave both companies until November 7 to respond. Comcast said it will provide an additional, more detailed response to the AG by then. AT&T's DirecTV division hasn't responded to Weiser's office yet, Weiser's office told Ars today. We contacted AT&T today and will update this article if we get a response.

The actions of DirecTV, which apparently hasn't offered credits to customers, have been "very concerning," Weiser told The Denver Post.

"Based on early conversations with DirecTV and AT&T, we didn't believe they were taking the request with the seriousness that they should," a spokesperson for Weiser also told the Post.

Interestingly, this is just the tip of the spear when it comes to the AG's investigation. Weiser letter also informed both cable operators that the AG was looking into how both companies assess customers fees generally, with an eye towards whether such fees would violate state law on deceptive trade practices. This, of course, is the cable television standard, so it's good to see at least one state taking a hard look at how cable TV customers are being bilked out of money with bullshit fees.

Filed Under: blackouts, broadcast fees, colorado, fees, phil weiser, regional sports network, tv
Companies: altitude sports network, at&t, comcast, directv


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Nov 2019 @ 8:12pm

    Ooops

    It was an accident. Honest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 6:13am

      Re: Ooops

      To be fair, it was probably just a bullshit fee with "sports" in the name with no connection to any actual channels. Like the "broadcast TV fee". They're getting away with that, so why would they expect any trouble now?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:21am

        Re: Re: Ooops

        To be fair, it was definately spelled out in the article.

        Had you read it, you would know the charge was for a premium service that had to be blacked out due to negotiation failures and they still charged for it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:29am

          Re: Re: Re: Ooops

          Had you read it, you would know the charge was for a premium service that had to be blacked out

          Can you point more specifically to that text? I'm not seeing it. It does say "The RSN fees have long been controversial. Comcast, DirecTV, and other providers don't include RSN fees in their advertised prices, so they contribute to the bill shock customers experience when they find out they're going to pay more than the companies claimed they would. … TV providers have used the same approach with 'broadcast TV' fees".

          That strongly suggests that it's not an optional premium service that people have signed up for; just a charge they didn't want or expect, which may or may not have anything to do with sports.

          Separately, it says "Altitude was blacked out on both DirecTV and Comcast two months ago because the TV providers didn't want to pay Altitude as much as it asked for." So they didn't have to black it out, they chose to. Evidently, they get annoyed when a provider raises costs without justification, and they decided that cord-cutting was the best way to handle it.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:46am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Ooops

            "Comcast, DirecTV, and other providers don't include RSN fees in their advertised prices"

            Which is a problem. But, normally they have the sense to make them generic enough that they're hard to argue. "broadcast TV fee" could mean anything when questioned. "Regional sports fee" doesn't have the same leeway when you stop offering the regional sports channel.

            "That strongly suggests that it's not an optional premium service that people have signed up for; just a charge they didn't want or expect, which may or may not have anything to do with sports."

            I'm interested... how do you parse the following without concluding that the charge was tied to a specific sports channel?

            "the Colorado AG is looking into why DirectTV kept charging customers the regional sports fee for the channel it was no longer showing"

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 8:08am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ooops

              "broadcast TV fee" could mean anything when questioned.

              Not really. One would expect it to relate to actual costs of broadcast channels only (not cable-only channels). And that's what the basic cable charges are already supposed to cover.

              I'm interested... how do you parse the following without
              concluding that the charge was tied to a specific sports channel?

              I conclude that the Colorade AG believes the regional sports fee was at least partially for that channel (presumably it's also for other regional sports channels and not all were blacked out). Of course, DirectTV wants people to think it is, which is why they named it that. That doesn't mean it actually is.

              I mean, they're not quite at the point where they can write "bullshit fee" on your bill and get away with it. The article implies even people who never watch sports would have been forced to pay the fee, which supports the "bullshit" theory. (Which would be a deceptive trade practice, but as stated, they have a long history of getting away with those.)

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 8:19am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ooops

              "Regional sports fee" doesn't have the same leeway when you stop offering the regional sports channel.

              It's sufficiently vague that DirectTV paying to have its name on a local stadium or some uniforms could also fall under that term. Or paying for the sports you see on non-premium channels, like maybe a little-league game carried on an ABC affliate or a public-access channel that was never blacked out.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 11:00am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Ooops

            "Can you point more specifically to that text?"
            That is a valid point, I assumed it was premium charge, perhaps it is not. Is regional sports part of the basic package? I would think not, idk.

            The quote to which I referred:
            "In Colorado, both DirectTV and Comcast were hit with a blackout of the Altitude Sports Network, the broadcaster for the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and more. ASN wanted, as per usual, higher fees for its broadcast rights. DirectTV and Comcast did not want to pay those higher fees"

            Broadcast tv is a different animal, usually these rsn sporting events are not available over the air.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 12:39pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Ooops

              I assumed it was premium charge, perhaps it is not.

              The article isn't explicit, but says new subscribers are surprised by that charge. Nobody's surprised when they subscribe to a premium channel and see a charge for that channel. Whether or not basic cable subscribers see it, that suggests the link to specific channels is less than obvious.

              "In Colorado, both DirectTV and Comcast were hit with a blackout of the Altitude Sports Network, the broadcaster for the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and more. ASN wanted, as per usual, higher fees for its broadcast rights. DirectTV and Comcast did not want to pay those higher fees"

              If it were the "Altitude Sports Network" fee, nobody would be surprised to see it, and customers could unambiguously expect a refund after a blackout of that channel. HBO works like that (or did long ago, anyway); the cableco collects money with a standard markup, and passes an amount to HBO. If you don't want to pay, you cancel that channel and the fee is gone.

              The "regional sports network" fee could be for other channels too; or for no channels, but disguised to make people think it's something to do with sports channels (like how the "broadcast fee" is just a misleading name, in that its creation was not tied to new fees by broadcasters and increases have no clear tie to broadcaster fee increases). I don't believe anyone outside those companies knows.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    K`Tetch (profile), 13 Nov 2019 @ 10:48pm

    They took money for a service they weren't providing. That's Fraud The service was deliberately not being provided as an active choice by DirecTV/comcast That makes it deliberate. DirecTV isn't even acting like it was an accident, but is all 'yeah, so what'. They've also commited fraud a number of other times (example - https://www.cleveland.com/moneymatters/2019/05/att-overcharges-woman-by-1500-and-wont-refund-it-mone y-matters.html) You could call them Predicate offenses, since they have a similar method/purpose/result, are committed by the same company, with the same intent, and they sure as hell aren't isolated events... That's right, it's RICO BABY!!!!!! (Sorry not sorry, Ken) Let's start having these executives face some consequences for their actions for once.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      K`Tetch (profile), 13 Nov 2019 @ 10:57pm

      Re:

      In case anyone's wondering the specifics, The RICO act (U.S. Code § 1961) includes as "rackettering activity" the following Title 18 sections, amongst others "section 1341 (relating to mail fraud), section 1343 (relating to wire fraud), section 1344 (relating to financial institution fraud)".

      If they've sent a paper bill, that's mail fraud; an electronic bill, wire fraud, and if any of their customers includes a bank (say they have it for the financial news channels and because it bundles to lower their overall costs), that's financial institution fraud.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 Nov 2019 @ 11:35pm

    Asking questions everyone already knows the answer to

    Weiser sent letters to the AT&T-owned DirecTV and Comcast on October 23, asking why the companies kept charging RSN fees after they stopped providing the Altitude Sports network.

    No need to wait for them to get back to the AG, I can answer that one, as could any number of people I'm sure.

    'Because we could, we know any resulting fine(assuming there even is one) will almost certainly be lower than what we got from doing so, and what do you think you can do about it?'

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    EngineerZ, 14 Nov 2019 @ 5:34am

    Perhaps DirectTV is saying "OK, maybe you don't owe us this fee. But we have 10,000 fees. Do you really want us to go back to Dallas and find a fee you do owe us?"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 6:54am

    As bad as DirecTV/AT&T is, I'd still like to see the contract between them and the RSN. There is a slight possibility that they could still owe those fees to the RSN.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:24am

      Re:

      Pointing out how bad the media content people are in no way diminishes the level of bad seen here from the likes of att/comcrap/directtv.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:27am

      Re:

      "There is a slight possibility that they could still owe those fees to the RSN."

      That's irrelevant to the end customer.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 10:30am

      Re:

      That's their problem if they 'dropped' a channel that they are contractually obligated to pay for, that doesn't mean that their customers have to keep paying them for a service they aren't providing.

      This is all a BS sidetrack anyway, it doesn't matter what they are required to pay, that's part of their business model (and they should have thought twice about not negotiating if they are contractually obligated to pay anyway... which is why this whole issue is BS trying to distract from the real issue... That AT&T/Direct TV are a bunch of thieving liars...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 7:59am

    Suuure, "forgot."

    wink

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 9:46am

    For the one out of 100 people who complain, they remove the item from the invoice.

    How nice of them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Eric, 14 Nov 2019 @ 10:18am

    Can't Wait

    I can't wait to see the below the line line item on their customers bill 'Recoup Federal Fine Fee for Ripping You Off in the First Place' (although i realize that might be too long to put on the bill!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 12:24pm

      Re: Can't Wait

      Naah.. They will just append the "Billing Statement Size Extension Fee" to cover the cost of making it fit.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 14 Nov 2019 @ 12:38pm

    err

    "For what it's worth, the AG both gave DirectTV some time to respond with its plans."
    Not sure if this should be that the AG gave both DirectTV and Comcast some time or the AG and Arc both gave DirectTV some time

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 2:55pm

    Sports are dead.
    They just fired the only Cherry on top.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Nov 2019 @ 5:37pm

    You forgot the air quotes.
    "DirectTV 'Forgot' To Stop Charging Customers..."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    goaliebob99 (profile), 14 Nov 2019 @ 5:55pm

    ATT will win this one.

    The fee is a regional sports fee. DirecTV provides more than one regional sports network in Denver. There is no requirement that says because DirecTV drops a network they must stop the fee. DirecTV & AT&T's defense will be that because they still gave customers AT&T Sportsnet Rocky Mountain that the fee is valid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    NaBUru38 (profile), 15 Nov 2019 @ 4:21am

    These carriage conflicts and fees happen to major local stations and sports channels for a very clear reason: those channels are the most desired and most expensive ones.

    Of course companies shouldn't charge fees for channels they don't offer. Of course the advertised cost should include all fees.

    Yet, its good that companies show the cost of specific channels (especially the expensive ones), as this case shows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2019 @ 7:06am

      Re:

      "These carriage conflicts and fees happen to major local stations and sports channels for a very clear reason: those channels are the most desired and most expensive ones."

      I was unaware that sports carriage fees were the most expensive. Is this in terms of purchasing the carriage rights and/or the cost to the consumer?

      "Of course companies shouldn't charge fees for channels they don't offer. Of course the advertised cost should include all fees."
      Any idea why they charge for channels they no longer offer? Why do they lie about the cost to the consumer?

      "Yet, its good that companies show the cost of specific channels (especially the expensive ones), as this case shows."
      I thought this case showed that they are not disclosing all the details about the cost of specific channels, and yet you claim they do? What am I missing here?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 18 Nov 2019 @ 6:57am

      Re:

      Yet, its good that companies show the cost of specific channels (especially the expensive ones), as this case shows.

      They do that to make their advertised price look cheaper, not for transparency. If they wanted to include all these fees in their advertised price, and also break them out on the invoice, that would be fine.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    mrtraver (profile), 16 Nov 2019 @ 4:17pm

    DirecTV just wanted to one-up Comcast customer service.

    Ars had a write-up on this a couple of weeks ago: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2019/11/directv-kept-charging-regional-sports-fee-while-channel- was-blacked-out/

    Comcast offers other regional sports programming, so they offered partial refunds for Altitude being blacked out. But DirecTV "...would have less of an excuse than Comcast to keep charging an RSN fee while Altitude was blacked out, because AT&T itself owns the other major RSN for professional sports in Colorado. TV providers claim they need to charge customers RSN fees to cover the high carriage prices charged by regional sports networks. But when the TV provider owns the network, as AT&T does with AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, those carriage payments are simply going from one part of the company to another."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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