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Billshit: A line-by-line look at your bloated, horrible cable bill

Posted By Kristin Wong On 01/08/2014 @ 8:30 am In Billshit | 30 Comments

I know. Here I am, a person who writes about living frugally and saving money and all that, and I still subscribe to one of the biggest rip-offs of all time: Cable TV. I’m not proud of it, and I blame Breaking Bad. I couldn’t exactly get rid of cable when Walt went on the lam, and, ever since then, well, I’ve just been lazy.

Despite the variety of alternatives that now exist, lots of people still have cable. So in this edition of Billshit, I thought I’d run down my bill, call my cable company and get the details of every single line item. It was pure hell, but hopefully reading about it won’t be.

In the photo, you’ll find the cable bill for Ms. Kristine Nong. I have no idea who this is, but I’ve been paying her cable bill for quite some time now.

The first thing you should notice is an insane one-time $199.00 charge for ‘NBA Season.’ My boyfriend paid for this, because he loves basketball and wants to watch basketball for the next six months. Yes, I’ve tried telling him this price is crazy–if you want to have a go at it, feel free to sound off in the comments. Until he comes to his senses, we’ll have to ignore this.

Let’s look at the ‘Monthly Services’ section of this bill, along with ‘Taxes, fees & surcharges.’

HD-DVR Box & Remote: $10.00

My cable company charges customers $10 a month for their cable box and remote control. It’s ridiculous, and I’ve argued this with them before. But for the sake of this piece, I argued again:

“So you’re saying if I want to watch the cable I already pay for, I have to pay for this, too?”

“Yes.”

Internet/Cable package: $109.99

The first thing I noticed about this price is that it’s about twenty bucks more than it was on my last statement. What an outrage, right? Yes, and it’s an outrage I have to deal with every few months. It seems like every three months, some “promotional offer” expires, and this is the “lowest price we can give you at this time.” It’s complete Billshit. I’ve come to understand that a price increase means I’ll have to call and argue my way back to my old price.

“My bill went up $20 this month. Last month, I was paying for ‘Basic TV.’ This month I’m paying for ‘Preferred TV,’” I told the customer service rep.

“Yeah, we changed the names,” she replied. (Huh?)

“Uh, okay. Well, I’d like to go back to what I was paying, or cancel everything.”

“Okay, no problem. I’ll transfer you to our cancellations department,” she said, cheerfully.

This is part of the game. They pretend they don’t care if you quit, then they transfer you to cancellations, where you’re manipulated through a maze of up-selling and convoluted offers.

“Before you transfer me, I’d like to ask about some of these other charges, just out of curiosity,” I said.

DVR Service-$12.99

I pay $12.99 for DVR services, which I don’t need. It came with a package a while back, but now, it’s just an added expense, so I asked to have it removed.

Internet Modem Lease–$5.99

I’m charged a monthly fee for “leasing” something that I can get on eBay for a one-time price of probably five bucks.

To confirm this, I asked, “Can I return the leased modem to you and use my own for free?”

“That is correct.”

Turbo Upgrade–$10

I pay an extra $10 for a faster Internet upload speed. I sometimes edit and send videos for work, and I’ve definitely noticed a difference since upgrading. In fact, I once tried to get rid of this expense and downgrade; it took forever to send files. So I consider this is a necessary business expense.

PEG Capital Fee–$2.99, Franchise Fee–$14.58

Ah, fees and taxes.

PEG stands for “public, educational, and governmental.” This fee pays the city for channels broadcast by universities or local government bodies. The city of Los Angeles has its own public-access station, for example. So does California State University.

Point is, these fees and taxes are regulated locally and vary depending on where you live. While both of the above fees are generally dedicated to the same thing, the capital fee is designated for a specific expense–the local government’s “capital expenses” related to the PEG channels. The franchise fee is an additional fee the cable company has to pay to broadcast these channels.

Here’s how Comcast puts it:

“A local franchise authority may require that a cable operator provide channels for public, education, and/or government access. The LFA may require the cable operator to provide funds for equipment for local studios for these channels and operating funds to cover the expenses of operating the studios.”

Depending on where you live, what company you have and what services you use, you might also pay an FCC regulatory fee, a 9-1-1 fee, a right-of-way fee or a handful of other fees.

Overall, your fees/taxes section is the cable company’s way of passing on their fees and taxes to you.  If you subscribe to cable, you pay for their fees one way or another, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Lowering my package price

After verifying the above with the customer service rep, I was then transferred to the cancellation department. This rep began the conversation by reminding me that a) she wants to keep my business; b) she’s a consumer, too.

“Now how I can help you lower your bill? What kind of programs do you enjoy watching?”

Whatever.  I’m really not interested in having a conversation about how often I watch House Hunters. At this point, I’m an old pro. I do this every three months, when they decide to raise my price. I know the game, and each time I play, I navigate it more quickly than the last. In the past, it’s taken me half an hour to argue my way into a less expensive bill. Today, I was done in five minutes. My tactic is:

  • Ignore the marketing formalities.
  • Mirror their patience. If they interrupt, you interrupt. If they raise their voice, you raise your voice.
  • Stick to your guns.

To recap, here’s the price increase of my cable and Internet package:

November 2013: $90.99

December 2013: $109.99

“I don’t want to talk about my television viewing habits,” I told her. “I either want to get my bill back down to where it was, or cancel everything.”

She pressed on, asking about whether I record TV, what I use my Internet for, blah blah blah. Finally, I insisted:

“I’m not interested in discussing any of my habits or offers or promotions. I’m not interested in the details, I’d just like to either get my bill back down to where it was, with the same services, or cancel everything.”

“Let me place you on hold,” she responded, flatly. When she came back:

“At this time, we were able to lower your price back down to $90. Can I help you with anything else today?”

Easy as that. I kind of felt rude afterward, but that’s the game. And this is my potential savings:

  • Savings after arguing over price increase: $19/month
  • Savings after buying my own Internet modem: $5.99/month
  • Savings from removing DVR service: $12.99/month
  • Grand total savings: $37.98/month

Provided I get my own modem, my next bill should be just under a hundred dollars, at $98.56. Of course, the more frugal option is probably just getting rid of cable altogether. But then I wouldn’t get to have those nice chats every few months.


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