Two decades ago, something unusual happened.

Consumers were irate about their cable bills, which were increasing at nearly three times the rate of inflation. And Congress actually did something — adopting in overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion the 1992 Cable Act. The law resulted in lower cable bills, saving consumers $3 billion in just over a year’s time.

But this was only a brief respite. Washington soon caught a deregulatory fever, and less than three years after a super-majority of Congress voted to rein in monopoly cable prices, an even larger super-majority voted to let the cable industry return to its price-gouging ways. And return to them it did.

Since 1996, cable bills have continued to increase at nearly three times the rate of inflation. And this trend is only getting worse. Since the 2008 recession, the average annual rate of inflation has been 1.4 percent, but the price of expanded basic cable service has increased by an annual average of 5 percent. And these figures don’t include mandatory equipment-rental costs, which continue to skyrocket.

While no one is willing to take credit for these out-of-control price increases, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Cable channel owners like Viacom, Disney and News Corp., and cable providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, are the two factions of a comfortable cabal, one that earns monopoly-level profits from consumers who are deprived of any real choice in the pay-TV market.

Programmers like Viacom force cable companies like Comcast to buy channels in bundles — meaning providers can’t have popular channels like MTV without also carrying little-seen channels like VH1 Soul. Cable companies in turn force consumers to pay for hundreds of channels they’ll never watch.

To make matters worse, cable companies are also the largest providers of broadband service, which a growing number of consumers are using to cut the pay-TV cord in favor of online video programming. To protect their legacy pay-TV profits, cable providers are raising the fees they charge for broadband, and strong-arming the programmers to agree to withhold their content from online video companies like Netflix.

Change may be on the horizon, thanks to the Television Consumer Freedom Act. Introduced by Sen. John McCain and co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, this bipartisan bill could shake up the cable industry and finally give consumers a real measure of control.

The bill ensures consumers are offered an a la carte option alongside more flexible bundled-channel packages, allowing us to pay for only the channels we actually want to watch. This would save consumers money in the short run — and in the long run would help create a more competitive television market both online and via the traditional cable and satellite delivery platforms.

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News from Around the Web

  • Why a Conservative Senator Is Questioning the Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

    Christian Science Monitor
    April 11, 2014

    Comcast wants to merge with Time Warner Cable, combining the country's two largest cable companies. In a congressional hearing, Comcast touted the deal, but the doubts of Sen. Mike Lee pointed to broader concerns.

  • Time Warner Cable, Comcast Executives Seek Support in Congress for Deal

    The Hill
    April 9, 2014

    Comcast and Time Warner Cable executives are headed to Capitol Hill to try to sway skeptical lawmakers to support their proposal for a $45.2 billion merger.

  • Comcast: Nobody 'Rational, Knowledgeable' Opposes Our Merger

    Broadband Reports
    April 4, 2014

    Comcast's top lobbyist David Cohen (who skirts lobbying disclosure rules by simply pretending he's not a lobbyist) says he's yet to hear any "rational, knowledgeable voices" objecting to his company's planned $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. In an interview with CSPAN, Cohen again reiterated that the deal would be great for consumers and great for America, as if a man paid to lobby for Comcast would voice any other opinion.

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  • Broadband

    Access to high-speed Internet service — also known as broadband — is a basic public necessity, just like water or electricity.

    Yet despite its importance, broadband access in the United States is far from universal. Millions of Americans still stand on the wrong side of the "digital divide," unable to tap into the political, economic and social resources of the Internet.

  • Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

    On Feb. 13, Comcast announced its bid to buy its chief rival, Time Warner Cable. If approved, this deal would create a television and Internet colossus like no other.

    Comcast is the country’s #1 cable and Internet company and Time Warner Cable is #2. They both regularly rank at the bottom of the barrel in customer-service surveys. Put them together and you get one subpar giant offering service to two-thirds of U.S. homes.

  • Cybersecurity

    Our right to private communications is a cornerstone of American democracy. But with heightened awareness in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, technological advances have continued allowing the government to expand its reach into our private lives via electronic surveillance and data-mining programs. New laws and policies introduced in the last decade have eroded our civil liberties online.

    Congress has a poor track record when it comes to cybersecurity legislation. The bills introduced so far give the government way too much power to intrude on our privacy online.

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good