House lawmakers pass bill aimed at cracking down on hidden cable TV fees

The Comcast logo is seen on a retail store in Sacramento, California on July 3, 2015. (Photo: Matthew Keys / The Desk)

Federal lawmakers passed a measure on Tuesday that targets hidden fees in cable and satellite bills.

House Resolution 5035, also known as the Television Viewer Protection Act of 2019, is a slimmed-down version of legislation introduced earlier this year that seeks to protect consumers by requiring cable companies include taxes, programming fees, municipal surcharges and other costs in advertised prices.

“Cable companies pocket an estimated $28 billion a year from the American people by advertising one price to customers, [only to later] add other confusing charges to their bills,” Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.) said in a statement. “The legislation cuts the cord on hidden fees while also ensuring that the subscribers of small cable operators are not paying an unfair amount in programming costs because large broadcast companies refuse to negotiate fairly.”

Traditional cable and satellite companies have been shedding pay TV customers over the last decade, with many households moving toward streaming services like Netflix or Internet-based linear TV services like Sling and YouTube TV. Cost is often cited as the top reason for customers ditching cable and satellite for online services, and many have expressed a frustration at hidden fees on cable bills that are higher than advertised promotional prices.

Some fees, like those passed on to consumers for programming costs, quickly add up: Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, charges up to $15 a month for broadcast TV channels, even though many of these channels can be viewed for free using an antenna. Comcast provides no way for customers to opt out of the fee. The company also charges up to $8 a month for regional sports channels where offered.

Comcast typically does not include those fees in promotional prices mentioned in ads — the cable company includes a passing mention of them in the fine print. Customers often learn about the fees when they get their first bill long after they’ve signed a contract agreeing to service for one or two years.

HR 5035 would change these practices: It would require companies like Comcast fully disclose all hidden taxes, fees and other surcharges in all prices. It would also require cable and satellite companies notify customers of price increases and allow them to cancel their service within 24 hours of being notified without being charged a penalty for breaking their contract.

The measure would apply to all services offered by a cable or satellite company, including home phone and Internet service.

Though largely focused on consumer fees, the measure also contains provisions that protect cable companies from higher fees themselves: It allows small cable companies to band together and form a “buying group” that negotiates broadcast transmission fees on their behalf. Lawmakers said the provision would allow smaller cable operators, including those who serve rural communities, to have similar bargaining powers as bigger companies.

The measure also extends a satellite company’s ability to give customers access to broadcast stations from other cities under certain circumstances. The extension removes an expiration date on existing law that already allows satellite companies to provide so-called “distant locals” to customers who live in communities that aren’t able to receive one or more affiliate of a national network “because of restrictive geography or [a customer’s] remote location.”

HR 5035 passed in the House by voice vote during a largely-empty session. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.

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