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What?! Another Time Warner Cable rate hike?

It's time for cable and satellite subscribers to pay only for the channels they want, rather than the dozens that they don't.

March 12, 2010|David Lazarus

There's definitely an art to informing customers that you're about to smack them upside the head.

About 500,000 Time Warner Cable customers in Southern California probably knew they were in for trouble when they received a letter the other day that began: "At Time Warner Cable, we strive to bring you the best products and services available."

Does a sentence like that ever signal anything except bad news?

Time Warner takes two full paragraphs to clear its corporate throat before it finally gets to the point:

"We are making some adjustments effective with your next billing statement. Certain services, packages and equipment prices will change."

Even then, the company can't quite bring itself to clearly state that prices are going up again. The letter refers only to "price adjustments," and nowhere does it say that your cable bill is about to get more expensive.

You have to make your way to the back page of an enclosed pamphlet to finally learn that the cost of the typical cable package is rising by as much as $3.04 a month.

That's a more than 4% increase, or nearly twice the inflation rate last year.

The company's latest rate hike, which takes effect April 1, follows an identical increase in January for the rest of Time Warner Cable's nearly 2 million SoCal customers, as well as prior increases last year.

Patricia Fregoso-Cox, a Time Warner spokeswoman, blamed the higher prices on rising costs for content.

"The programming costs are the key driver for our rate increases," she said. "The costs continue rising year after year."

A spat over just this issue kept Walt Disney Co.'s ABC affiliate in New York, WABC, off Cablevision's local network until 13 minutes into the Academy Awards last Sunday. The two sides were bickering over how much Cablevision should have to pay for Disney's shows.

Time Warner and News Corp., owner of the Fox family of channels, had their own such slugfest in December. They managed to cut a deal only after their contract expired and the threat of Fox channels going dark drew lawmakers' attention.

Time Warner joined other leading cable operators this week in asking the Federal Communications Commission to block broadcasters from pulling their shows during contract disputes. They want an official arbitration system put in place.

I say: Enough already. Leave consumers out of it.

Even though the average U.S. home now gets 118 cable channels, the dirty little secret of the industry is that the typical subscriber watches only about 17 channels regularly, according to Nielsen Co.

Basically, cable companies and programmers are duking it out over a bunch of channels that most people don't even watch -- yet we're all left holding the bag for the full cost of these bloated cable packages.

It's time for cable and satellite subscribers to pay only for the channels they want, rather than the dozens that they don't.

Yes, this will require an overhaul of how the industry does business, but, hey, cable companies aren't the only ones facing a new revenue reality (see: "newspapers, effect of Internet").

I've heard rumblings from cable industry insiders that smaller packages are on the horizon -- 40 or 50 channels, say, instead of two or three times that number. That would be a step in the right direction, but it's not good enough.

It's time for so-called a la carte pricing: giving consumers the power to design their own programming packages. Want Turner Classic Movies but not AMC? Help yourself. ESPN but not the Golf Channel? Go for it.

Or if subscribers have to receive a minimum number of channels to make cable or satellite service commercially viable -- say, 20 or 30 channels -- then let us choose from a menu of programming options, rather than let someone else decide what we can watch.

It's a different media world. Just as iTunes lets people buy specific songs rather than whole albums, cable companies need to end the heavy-handed practice of forcing customers to buy unwanted channels.

And if cable companies can't find the wherewithal to do it themselves, lawmakers and federal regulators should do it for them.

Fighting for time

Here's an update on my recent column about Bob Iritano, the Westlake Village man with terminal cancer who was denied coverage for a previously approved treatment by his insurer, Health Net.

The column, which received attention nationwide and was accompanied by a related report on KCET’s “SoCal Connected,” explored the predicament of a man who knows he's going to die but is fighting for as much time as he can get with his wife and four kids.

It related how Health Net had changed its coverage guidelines and told Iritano, 50, that if he wanted to repeat a pain-relieving and (hopefully) life-extending procedure to zap tumors on his liver with microwaves, he'd have to cover the $20,000 cost himself.

As a result of my reporting on the matter, Health Net told Iritano he could have the treatment, but on a one-time-only basis.

I'm glad to say the procedure -- radio frequency ablation -- went well, and Iritano says he's relatively pain-free, at least for now.

I'm also glad to say that the California attorney general's office has contacted Iritano as part of an investigation into claim denials by leading health insurers. Sen. Barbara Boxer's office has also gotten in touch.

It's hard to say what will happen next. Iritano's doctor believes he could require another round of microwaves in about six months. Health Net has said its most recent approval of the treatment doesn't mean it will do so again.

I'll keep you posted.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com

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