Yes, you read that right. Time Warner Cable's planned refund to Los Angeles customers for the first eight days of its blackout of CBS, Showtime and other affiliated channels will be four dollars and change.
How do I know this? I was told so by a Time Warner billing representative over the weekend. She didn't give up the information willingly, but only after I applied techniques I learned from a dentist's handbook, specifically the chapter on pulling teeth.
Before I persuaded her to make the calculation, she fed me the standard Time Warner line: because no one knows how long the blackout will last, the cable company doesn't want to give subscribers an estimate of their rebate. Of course, the real reason may be its embarrassment at the paltry recompense or its fear that its plans will spark an uproar. An uproar is appropriate.
The blackout, you'll recall, started Aug. 2. That's when Time Warner stopped providing signals from CBS and the CBS-owned Showtime movie channel to subscribers in L.A., New York and other major cities.
The two companies are blaming each other for the breakdown in their negotiations over fees to be paid CBS for retransmission of its broadcasts, but really, who cares? The company I pay my monthly charges to is Time Warner Cable; it's their responsibility to provide the services that I and 3 million other subscribers pay for. Let's not forget that the cable company requires customers to pay for their monthly services in advance -- if your bill is current, you've already forked over your money for the channels you're not getting.
Time Warner is going to try to offer its customers chump change as compensation for its dereliction. The four bucks or so it says it will refund me covers only Showtime, a premium channel for which it collects a fee over and above its basic cable fee. For CBS, it's planning to refund customers exactly nothing.
Does this sound right to you? Me neither. My monthly bill comes to nearly $145 for video alone, not counting fees for the various boxes the firm sticks me for. As it happens, Showtime is a cable channel I watch more than most others, and CBS just this weekend broadcast the PGA Championship, one of golf's major tournaments -- though not in my house. The fact is that different cable channels have different values to individual households.
Yet Time Warner is claiming that the value of these channels comes to just 50 cents a day. Here's a good bet: If it could unbundle those two channels and sell them separately, it would charge a boatload more than 50 cents a day for them.
Allowing the firm to get away with cheating its customers in this case will just allow it to pull the same stunt the next time around, when some other content provider takes a firm stand in negotiations. That's not good enough; the firm should be required to repay subscribers at a punitive rate, so it understands that it has breached its responsibility.
Time Warner, like other cable providers, is regulated by the localities where it holds its monopoly for cable service. But the regulators are a pathetically supine bunch. Thus far, only New York City has held a hearing on the blackout. Los Angeles authorities so far have been silent. The Federal Communications Commission and Congress also have power to end this victimization of monopoly customers. So far, they've played hands-off (on this and a myriad other important issues, but who's counting?). They need to step in.
What can you do? Contact your local cable authority and insist on fair compensation for the blackout. You can also vote with your feet. Time Warner has a monopoly in its service region on cable service, but many communities (though not mine) also have fiber-optics service from Verizon or AT&T. Even where fiber is unavailable, there's always satellite. Time Warner is happy to tell its customers how to find alternative sources of CBS programming; now you know where to find alternative cable and Internet providers.
And get your Time Warner billing reps on the phone, but don't let them give you the company line.