Issues Related to Competition and Subscriber Rates in the Cable Television Industry

GAO-04-8: Published: Oct 24, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 24, 2003.

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Over 70 million American households receive television service from a cable television operator. 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.

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. In particular, GAO found that 84 of the 100 franchises it surveyed did not provide a complete or accurate accounting of their cost changes for the year. 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. Policies to bring about lower cable rates could have other effects that would need to be considered.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC has modified several aspects of its survey on cable franchise rates and in doing so implemented GAO's recommendations regarding the clarify of their survey.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality and usefulness of the data that FCC collects on cable television rates and competition in the subscription video industry, the Chairman of the FCC should take immediate steps to improve the cable rates survey by (1) including more detailed, standardized instructions and examples for how to calculate the cost changes that the cable operators experienced in the previous year and (2) eliminating the requirement for the cost increases to sum to the change in rates.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FCC does not believe that it can change the manner in which it classifies franchise areas as having "effective competition".

    Recommendation: To improve the quality and usefulness of the data that FCC collects on cable television rates and competition in the subscription video industry, the Chairman of the FCC should review the commission's process for maintaining the status of effective competition among franchises in order to keep these designations more up to date.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission


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