Subscriber Rates and Competition in the Cable Television Industry

GAO-04-262T: Published: Mar 25, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 25, 2004.

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In recent years, rates for cable service have increased at a faster pace than the general rate of inflation. GAO agreed to (1) examine the impact of competition on cable rates and service, (2) assess the reliability of information contained in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) annual cable rate report, (3) examine the causes of recent cable rate increases, (4) assess the impact of ownership affiliations in the cable industry, (5) discuss why cable operators group networks into tiers, and (6) discuss options to address factors that could be contributing to cable rate increases. GAO issued its findings and recommendations in a report entitled Telecommunications: Issues Related to Competition and Subscriber Rates in the Cable Television Industry (GAO-04-8). In that report, GAO recommended that the Chairman of FCC take steps to improve the reliability, consistency, and relevance of information on cable rates and competition in the subscription video industry. In commenting on GAO's report, FCC agreed to make changes to its annual cable rate survey, but FCC questioned, on a cost/benefit basis, the utility of revising its process to keep the classification of effective competition up to date. GAO believes that FCC should examine whether cost-effective alternative processes could help provide more accurate information. This testimony is based on that report.

Competition leads to lower cable rates and improved quality. Competition from a wire-based company is limited to very few markets. However, where available, cable rates are substantially lower (by 15 percent) than in markets without this competition. Competition from direct broadcast satellite (DBS) companies is available nationwide, and the recent ability of these companies to provide local broadcast stations has enabled them to gain more customers. In markets where DBS companies provide local broadcast stations, cable operators improve the quality of their service. FCC's cable rate report does not appear to provide a reliable source of information on the cost factors underlying cable rate increases or on the effects of competition. GAO found that cable operators did not complete FCC's survey in a consistent manner, primarily because the survey lacked clear guidance. Also, GAO found that FCC does not initiate updates or revisions to its classification of competitive and noncompetitive areas. Thus, FCC's classifications might not reflect current conditions. A variety of factors contribute to increasing cable rates. During the past 3 years, the cost of programming has increased considerably (at least 34 percent), driven by the high cost of original programming, among other things. Additionally, cable operators have invested large sums in upgraded infrastructures, which generally permit additional channels, digital service, and broadband Internet access. Some concerns exist that ownership affiliations might indirectly influence cable rates. Broadcasters and cable operators own many cable networks. GAO found that cable networks affiliated with these companies are more likely to be carried by cable operators than nonaffiliated networks. However, cable networks affiliated with broadcasters or cable operators do not receive higher license fees, which are payments from cable operators to networks, than nonaffiliated networks. Technological, economic, and contractual factors explain the practice of grouping networks into tiers, thereby limiting the flexibility that subscribers have to choose only the networks that they want to receive. An ` la carte approach would facilitate more subscriber choice but require additional technology and customer service. Additionally, cable networks could lose advertising revenue. As a result, some subscribers' bills might decline but others might increase. Certain options for addressing cable rates have been put forth. Although reregulation of cable rates is one option, promoting competition could influence cable rates through the market process. While industry participants have suggested several options for addressing increasing cable rates, these options could have other unintended effects that would need to be considered in conjunction with the benefits of lower rates.

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