Consumer Reports launched the national "What the Fee?!" campaign on Wednesday by delivering to Comcast Corp.'s Philadelphia headquarters a petition with 110,000 signatures, asking that it be more transparent about buried fees in bills, such as monthly surcharges for broadcast television stations ($7.50), local sports broadcasts ($6.75), and DVRs ($10).
These fees add 25 percent to the advertised price for cable- or satellite-TV and climb even with guaranteed-price packages, a Consumer Reports official said in a rain-shortened news conference in front of the Comcast Center.
Consumer Reports surveyed members earlier this year about which fees were the most loathed and the resounding response was those in their pay-TV bills, the group said. Companies many times don't disclose the fees to consumers until after the service is installed in their homes, making it almost impossible to comparison shop.
One of those was Bernadette Freedman, of Bustleton, who said that in January, she bought a Comcast package with high-definition channels but couldn't watch them in HD quality until she paid an extra $10 "HD Technology" fee. "It seems like, 'hello, there is a fee for HD' even when those channels are in the package I am paying for," she said.
"It's time for Comcast and the cable industry as a whole to ditch these fees, and advertise the full price of their service so that consumers aren't left asking 'WTF?' when they get their bill," John Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said Wednesday. The nonprofit Consumer Reports is a membership organization that publishes a monthly magazine that rates products on price and quality.
Comcast said Wednesday that it was transparent with customers.
"Our Xfinity bill was designed based on customer feedback, and we've incorporated elements to make it simple to understand," spokesperson John Demming said in a statement. "The broadcast television and regional sports network fees are itemized on our bill so that our customers can clearly see those costs. We also provide customers a complete list of charges and fees for them to affirmatively consent to before we process any new or change of service orders as part of our sales process."
But they can be hard to find in the bill. These fees can also seem to be government-mandated charges and aren't disclosed when the service is sold, many consumers told Consumer Reports.
As a publicity prop, Consumer Reports stacked boxes that purportedly contained the paperwork for the 110,000 signatures to be delivered to Comcast officials. But the boxes were empty and the signatures were delivered in a thumb drive.
Hotels, airfares, cars, and concert tickets all have fees tacked on to them.
But Consumer Reports decided to start with the pay-TV industry. And Comcast drew the most criticism from the consumer group's members. Those who responded to the group's call for signatures for the petition — or about 25,000 to 30,000 of the 110,000 petition signers — identified Comcast as a problem. The ratio of Comcast complaints to total responses roughly corresponds to Comcast's market share in the pay-TV industry.
Last month, Consumer Reports sent letters to the 11 largest pay-TV operators in the U.S. Schwantes said that only three companies responded: Comcast, Verizon, and a third one he did not disclose because he has not talked with it yet. Consumer Reports is not seeking new laws or regulations and, at this point, was asking companies to act and be more transparent.
Consumer Reports also said that it was stunned by the response from consumers who sent in their cable, satellite-TV, and internet bills so that they can be mined for data. The group obtained 5,000 bills, many of them scanned and emailed. This summer, Consumer Reports will put the data into spreadsheets, analyze it, and report on the issues raised.
After its attention on the cable industry, Consumer Reports will look into fees in other services or industries, including travel, banking, and ticketing.
"There are a lot of consumer concern about fees across the marketplace," said Anna Laitin, director of financial policy for Consumers Union. "We are starting with cable because we have heard so much about it and people are angry."