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.