It used to be free, but now they’re charging for it — is that legal?

All the over-the-air broadcast channels used to be included in Barbara Wilkins’s basic cable TV package, or in her words, “They were ‘free.’”

Now they’re not.

Is that legal?

“I’m one of the small percentage of people in the US who lives too far from any city to receive over-the-air TV signals,” she says. “So if I want local news, I must purchase it from a cable company.”

Over the last 25 years, the cost of the broadcast package has risen from $6 per month to $25 per month, plus taxes and fees.

But recently, the bill began to include a $4 per month “retransmission” fee for broadcast TV. This year, it increased to $6 per month.

“This is on top of the $25 per month they charge me for my broadcast basic TV package,” she says.

Wilkins is paying notorious network retrans fees, which rose by $18 million, or 84%, to $39.5 million from 2014 to 2015. Although these are legal, they are questionable, according to the American Television Alliance.

The retrans gravy train keeps rolling for the broadcast industry as they continue to charge more and more for broadcast signals that are “free” over the air.

Congress has a duty to fix our broken video laws that rig the game in the favor of the big special interests at the expense of American consumers … Congress cannot allow broadcasters to use viewers as pawns while they line their pockets with outrageous TV fees.

Wilkins is incredulous.

“My understanding is that federal law permits TV stations to charge cable companies for what they also give away for free,” she says. “If I lived where an antenna would work, I could get these same stations for free, but because my job is approximately 100 miles away from any city with a TV station, I am unable to pick up those transmissions.”

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Why is this allowed?

The free-marketers reading this will say it’s simple. She lives far away, and a broadcast network is providing a service and charging the market rate. People like Wilkins (and members of Congress) should stay out of their way while they collect their hard-earned profits.

But if you’re an average consumer, you can see the wrong here. It’s not as if Wilkins has a choice. She can’t unbundle broadcast TV from her basic package, nor can she control how much the networks charge in retrans fees. What’s more, cable is a de facto monopoly, which means her choices are being connected — or not being connected.

“I don’t understand why, when all I am seeking is broadcast TV, I am being charged this much per month,” she says. “Since all I requested was broadcast basic, why doesn’t that include all the fees up front? In fact, for those of us who live too far to pick up over-the-air transmissions, why are we being charged a re-transmission fee at all?”

Does that story sound familiar? I mean, how many times have you heard airline passengers lament over being charged a fee for carry-on luggage? Or hotel guests over a resort fee? Why do they charge these extras? They’re legal, yes. But more to the point, because they can.

Of course, there’s a difference between can and should, but airlines, cable TV companies, and hotels don’t seem to know the difference.

Only the most callous, pro-business free-marketer would defend carry-on fees, retrans fees and resort fees (wait for it in the comments … some of them read this site). But the rest of us are just left to shake our heads in bewilderment as the rest of the world laughs at our unfettered, irresponsible, carelessly-regulated industries. And we get to be the suckers who pay these ridiculous fees.

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Ah, but don’t worry. It’s a free market.

Should retrans fees be legal?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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