Reality Check *Special Report*: CONSUMER VS. CABLEVISION VS. NEWS CORP.

One Man’s Journey Into the Conglomerate Abyss

For those not at the mercy of Cablevision’s stranglehold on cable television provisions up here in the northeast, it is important to begin this week with what corporate shenanigans have been transpiring over the past fourteen days.

News Corp, which owns the Fox Network, has pulled its product from Cablevision because it maintains that not only has the cable provider asked to pay a bundled discount for content without paying for the full package, but Cablevision has charged its customers, of which I am one, for said content without forwarding a substantial portion of these charges into the News Corp. bank account. News Corp. also argues that these alleged charges are not attached to rival ABC, NBC or CBS network programming.

Cablevision responds by claiming it pays a competitive rate to News Corp. for the right to include its stations on the basic cable package and in so doing has already forked over what was negotiated, despite News Corp. whining that it costs considerably more than other networks to produce its “high quality” content.

Cablevision, which has gorged consumers for decades with hidden rate hikes backed by ambiguously half-assed rhetoric, says it does not want to pay News Corp. a dime more than agreed so as to not have to raise the current rates, thus putting its customers, which again I am one, under siege by a salacious corporate monster, of which, let’s face it, Cablevision can consider itself counted.

And although it is propaganda worthy of P.T. Barnum, Cablevision has likely nailed it on the head. I am sure News Corp. is a salacious corporate monster. Problem here is I do not pay a monthly stipend to News Corp. I, as every last Cablevision customer, make out a check payable to Cablevision.

You see where we’re going here?

At around the seven-day mark of this stand-off, or about a day or so before we all realized around here the NY Yankees wouldn’t be defending their title in this year’s World Series—broadcasted by Fox—I placed a call to Cablevision customer service. A lovely woman by the name of Roslyn answered.

“Roslyn,” I began pleasantly. “How is Cablevision providing a requisite discount for the reduced services this month?”

“Sorry, sir,” Roslyn innocently asked; “What services do you mean?”

“I am paying for all the broadcast stations,” I explained “And I see you’re two short this month, so I would just like to know how Cablevision plans to compensate its customers.”

Roslyn, bless her heart, then proceeded to read awkwardly from a prepared script about the ongoing negotiations, a nod to FCC regulations, and a bit on the ideas of “bargaining in good faith.” She continued politely, if not disingenuously, to offer a series of canned apologies, which concluded with a promise that when all this is sorted out customers will be duly apprised of the next step.

“Yes,” I calmly retorted, “But no matter the outcome, I have been paying full price for an inferior or lesser service for a week’s time, and so I expect, as any consumer of any sub-standard service or product would, to receive an equivalent reduction in billing.” Once again, as if I had merely recited the alphabet or sung the final stanza of “Hey Jude” rather than offer a rational argument, Roslyn politely read from her script.

Before she could finish, I inquired as nicely as I could if she would be happy perhaps working an extra four hours a week for the same pay as she now receives, or more to the point, if she would have an issue with her hour lunch breaks being reduced to half an hour with no fair reparations.

“Well sir,” she sweetly answered. “That’s illegal.”

“Ahhhh,” I exhaled. “And so wouldn’t you agree as the representative of Cablevision currently on this phone line that what your company is doing to its customers is tantamount to the illegality offered in my pithy analogy?”

There was apparently no script for this part, for Roslyn responded with stone silence.

Fearing she had been bludgeoned into unconsciousness by reason, I posed to her one last binding query: “Roslyn, is it Cablevision’s official stance that it will charge the same price for less service?”

To her credit, Roslyn exited the logic train here and asked if I’d be more comfortable speaking with management. I agreed it would be best, but alas when she returned she instead gave me the press relations number in Long Island at Cablevision headquarters.

I called that number a day or so later, perhaps the Tuesday of this week, and received assurances from an amiable Lisa that a misters Charlie Shueler Executive VP of Communications and Jim Maiella Vice President of Media Relations Cable & Communications would be contacting me before my noon, Friday deadline.

Nothing by Thursday prompted me to call again. After further assurances from Lisa, the core of which had now begun to resemble the trade value of air, she provided me with the direct number for Mr. Maiella’s office. Since Lisa worked for Charles Shueler, you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce this line of pass-the-buck.

Friday morning around nine, I phoned Maiella’s office and spoke to his secretary. I could tell by her disappointed tone, she knew right away my identity and purpose, and after putting me on hold, said Maiella was unavailable at the moment, but would call me at home before my deadline.

A half an hour later, I received an e-mail message from Maiella with a series of attached media to outline the company marching orders on the state of Fox, the World Series, general Cablevision propaganda and probably a lollypop. It read: “James—anything specific I can help you with? Do you have our most recent information/announcements on the Fox matter? Please let me know how we can help.”

Not to be too much of a pain, I wrote: “I only need an answer on two issues from a consumer stand point: As a Cablevision customer, as too are many of my readers, I was wondering what plan Cablevision has in place to compensate monetarily or otherwise for
this downgrade in service, or to be less pejorative, a lesser service than
the one offered prior to Fox pulling its station. Secondly, I would like to know if there is no resolution to this dispute, if there will be an adjustment in the rates. Since as a customer we do not pay News Corp., and care little how the bread is baked, only if it is tasty, then we need some qualification on what will transpire as a result of two weeks of reduced service. Simply, I ask, as my column proffers, ‘Is it Cablevision’s official stance that there will be no requisite adjustment to the current rates for reduced service?’

I then gave Mr. Maiella a chance to respond without speaking, and so he took it:

“Background information – please don’t quote directly, but you can attribute the information to the company – we are obviously public with the reimbursement offer but we have not made any announcement related to broader rebates. I would be happy to make sure that you receive any information in that regard when it is available, does that sound fair?”

I did not think it fair, nor do I think you would. And so:

“I would like you to offer something on the record. I pretty much laid out my timeline on contacting Cablevision in the piece and it unfortunately or perhaps fortunately led to you. I think the fair thing for my readers is to have something on the record from someone at the company. If not you, is there anyone who would give me a direct quote, so I can conclude my story? I assure you this is not a hatchet job or an end-around. I simply would like a “Listen, we’re through the looking glass here” or “We haven’t dealt with” or something. Maybe it is a “stay tuned” situation, which I am sure you are accustomed to, but I need a quote of some kind.

I concluded by asking if he’d like to speak directly.

Nothing until nearly eleven, when I called and caught a none-too-pleased Mr. Maiella, who at first demonstratively asked if this was (using my terminology) a ‘hatchet job’— perfectly describing the timeline story, but couching it in demeaning terms. I had to agree that although it was a “timeline piece” replete with mockery, it was in my own unique and lovable idiom and without template and hardly an agenda beyond wanting to receive a simple answer.

The length and breadth of our nearly twenty minute discussion had to be off the record—take that how you wish—in which Mr. Maiella, a pretty stand-up fellow in a pretty damnable situation, tried to make the case that programming costs drive up rates and that Cablevision’s phone and internet rates have not increased in seven years. He also basically agreed with some humor that my “baked bread analogy” was apt when considering that if I went to buy a bagel and the baker was selling me half a bagel at the original price to avoid having to charge me twice as much for a full one due to a flour price increase I might be incredulous.

“It doesn’t seem like you’re getting into the substance of what they want and what we’re trying to be more reasonable about,” Maiella asked.

“Nope,” I said. “Not at all.”

At the end of this back-and-forth Maiella agreed to try and get back with more than the basic company line by noon, but if it winds up in a direct quote, then: “We have not made any announcement on rebates, but we’ll be in touch with our customers in the future.”

I send this to press at 12:29 pm on Friday with no other statement.

Information I received some eight days and twelve or so phone calls ago From Roslyn.

And so, we can conclude that it is Cablevision’s official policy at this time and place—not a magical future date and time—that it will continue to charge its customers the same rate for half a bagel.

James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of Deep Tank Jersey, Fear No Art and Trailing Jesus.