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Consumer Confidential: Ticketmaster refund, Lipitor probe

Here's your fool-to-cry Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--If you bought a ticket through Ticketmaster between October 1999 and October of this year, you're due for some cash -- $1.50, to be precise. Because of a proposed class action settlement, Ticketmaster is being forced to credit that much per ticket order (up to 17 orders) to customers because the company profited from "processing fees" without declaring that it was doing so. According to court documents, the original claim, filed Oct. 21, 2003, also implicates UPS' delivery price for expedited delivery of tickets as deceptive. This could end up costing Ticketmaster a hefty amount of money. If, in any given year over the four-year redemption period, less than $11.25 million is redeemed by customers, Ticketmaster is going to donate the remainder to charity. (Business Insider)

--For a while, it looked like the wireless market could get more competitive as cable companies tried to launch their own service. But that's not going to happen. Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks are giving up on their dreams of creating their own wireless network, opting instead to resell Verizon Wireless service. The companies say they have agreed to sell their wireless licenses -- which they haven't been using -- to Verizon for $3.6 billion. The cable companies paid $2.2 billion for the spectrum in 2006, so they're getting a 64% gain on a five-year investment. For Verizon, the deal offers millions of potential new customers and maintains the status quo in the wireless space. (Associated Press)

--First drug maker Pfizer had to contend with its blockbuster drug Lipitor going generic this week. Now some lawmakers are asking the company and other health businesses to detail agreements to block prescriptions of generic versions of the cholesterol drug Lipitor and sell only the Pfizer brand-name version. Pfizer is offering discounts to companies that will reject generic prescriptions and favor Lipitor. The senators say they're concerned about longer term impacts on employers, Medicare and healthcare costs. They include Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat; Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican; and Herb Kohl, the Wisconsin Democrat who is chairman of the Special Committee on Aging. (New York Times)

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Questionable fees will result in refunds for Ticketmaster customers. Credit: Paul Sakuma/AP


Idea for struggling cable companies: Charge per channel [Video]


Consumer columnist David Lazarus has an idea for cable companies facing greater competition from the Web: Stop charging customers a lot of money for packages that include shows we don't watch. Instead, he suggests that cable firms take a cue from iTunes and charge for only the channels a subscriber wants. According to the Nielsen Co., a typical cable subscriber watches only about 17 channels, not the hundred or so they pay for.

Read more in his column Friday.

--Pat Benson

Recent columns by David Lazarus:

JetBlue can teach Verizon a thing or two about compassion

Obama needs to add consumer agency to his to-do list

Inflated medical bills mask true cost of care

Consumer Confidential: Back-to-school prices, telecom tie-ups

Here's your don't-you-forget-about-me Friday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

-- It's back-to-school time, and it's going to cost you. But many stores would rather you didn't notice. Some are using less fabric for the clothing and calling it the new look. Others are adding cheap stitching and trumpeting it as a redesign. And the buttons on that blouse? Chances are you're not going to think it's worth paying several dollars more for the shirt just to have them. Retailers are raising prices on merchandise an average of 10% across the board this fall in an effort to offset their rising costs for materials and labor. The new strategies come as merchants' production and labor costs are expected to rise as much as 20% in the second half of the year after having remained low during most of the last two decades.

-- More consolidation may be ahead for telecom companies. Sprint Nextel is reportedly in talks with cable companies over a new round of investment that may lead to a full takeover of 4G partner Clearwire. Sprint is said to be in discussions with investors Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. According to Bloomberg, Sprint may use the investment to fund acquisition of the remaining stake in Clearwire that it doesn't own. Such a scenario could provide relief to cash-strapped Clearwire, which is seeking funding to stay alive and expand its network with faster technology. The company needs $600 million for its network upgrade and additional money to keep its operations going. Sprint, with a 54% stake in Clearwire, is both its largest shareholder and customer.

-- David Lazarus


Consumer Confidential: Pay TV, check cashing, federal rentals

Tvpic Here's your wink-wink Wednesday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--One way that people are adjusting to these tough economic times is by cutting the pay-TV cord. Viewers are canceling or forgoing cable and satellite TV subscriptions in record numbers, according to an analysis of the companies' quarterly earnings reports. The U.S. subscription-TV industry first showed a small net loss of subscribers a year ago. This year that trickle has turned into a stream. The chief cause appears to be persistently high unemployment and a housing market that has many people living with their parents, reducing the need for a separate cable bill. But it's also possible that people are canceling cable, or never signing up in the first place, because they're watching cheap Internet video. If so, viewers can expect more restrictions on online video as TV companies and Hollywood studios try to make sure that they get paid for what they produce.

--Wal-Mart is getting deeper into the check-cashing business. Like it does on most products and services, Wal-Mart's check-cashing fees largely undercut those charged by a typical check-cashing outlet, where consumers pay an average of 2% to 4% of the face value of the check to cash it. "This expanded program now enables Wal-Mart to bring everyday low price cashing services to more customers who have a need for immediate access to their cash," says Daniel Eckert, head of Wal-Mart Financial Services. That's nice. But it also highlights the fact that many people don't have access to the banking system and thus have to pay additional fees just to get their cash.

--Uncle Sam may be expanding as a landlord. The Obama administration is considering turning thousands of government-owned foreclosures into rental properties to help boost falling home prices. The Federal Housing Finance Agency says it is seeking input from investors on how to rent roughly 300,000 homes owned by government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration. All of the homes are in foreclosure. The government rescued the two mortgage giants in September 2008 and has funded them since the financial crisis. Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee about half of the nation's mortgages and nearly all new mortgages. The homes include single-family homes and condos.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: More TV viewers are saying "no thanks" to cable and satellite subscriptions.

NBC holds on to the Olympics [video]


NBC said today it won the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2020 for a whopping $4.38 billion.Why would the network make such a big bid when it lost money on the Vancouver games? Reporter Joe Flint explains in the video, above, and in his Company Town blog post.



NBC expected to announce deal for Olympics

New NBC Sports chief Mark Lazarus is no stranger to big deals

Comcast to invest additional $300 million for NBCUniversal programming


--Pat Benson

David Lazarus: Even priests can have trouble with the cable company [video]


Consumer columnist David Lazarus helps some Roman Catholic priests in North Hollywood who didn't understand why they were getting bills from Time Warner Cable.

David Lazarus's column in Tuesday's newspaper:

Getting Time Warner to do penance for overbilling

More columns by David Lazarus

Video by Pat Benson


Video: Approval of Comcast-NBC Universal deal expected this week

Entertainment business reporter Joe Flint says government approval of the Comcast-NBC Universal deal could come as soon as Tuesday.

The two media giants are hopeful that approval by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department will come this week. The deal would pair Comcast, the nation's largest cable and broadband provider, with content giant NBC Universal, whose holdings include the NBC network, Universal Studios and cable channels USA, Syfy, Bravo and MSNBC. 

But approval is likely to come with conditions. For example, Comcast might be required to provide its programming to an online video service if rivals such as Walt Disney Co., Time Warner or News Corp. were also feeding content to it.

Read more about what Joe has to say on his Company Town blog post.


News Corp. worries about conditions on Comcast - NBC deal

FCC likely to approve Comcast-NBC Universal deal with conditions

-- Pat Benson


Video: Oprah Winfrey's new cable channel strikes an important deal with Cablevision


Entertainment business reporter Joe Flint says OWN, the new cable network from Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications, has reached a deal with Cablevision Systems Inc. That gives the service an important piece of the television market.

Read more of Joe's blog post here.


Oprah Winfrey Network, after delays, set to launch Jan. 1

Oprah Winfrey's entry into the market followed closely by other networks aimed at women

-- Pat Benson



Video: David Lazarus on Time Warner Cable's gift to itself--more of your money


Consumer columnist David Lazarus says Time Warner Cable subscribers are being hit with another rate increase. It seems to be a holiday tradition.

A company spokesman says the latest increase reflects higher programming costs as well as overall improvements to the company's service. But Lazarus asks, why are these rate increases higher than the rate of inflation? Next year's Time Warner rate hike for basic cable is 5%, compared to the government's estimate for inflation of 1%.

Here's David's column: Time Warner Cable's gift to itself: More of your money


Time Warner Cable installs 361,000 miles of fiber optic cable in Southland

--Pat Benson

Video: Time Warner Cable to offer cheaper 'Essentials' package

 Time Warner Cable is testing a cheaper but limited "TV Essentials" package, entertainment business reporter Joe Flint writes. The package will carry about 50 channels and be tested in New York City and parts of Ohio. Time Warner Cable said it would have "representative channels from each major genre: news/information, sports, kids, music, lifestyle, shopping and general entertainment."


Comcast expands online viewing of broadcast and cable TV shows

Cablevision considering spinoff of Rainbow Media Holdings, parent of AMC and IFC

Comcast's gone chairman crazy in its executive structure for NBC Universal

 --Pat Benson



LifeLine telephone rates extended for low-income customers

Special LifeLine rates for low-income telephone customers that had been set to expire at year's end have been extended for another two years by state regulators.

The California Public Utilities Commission by a unanimous vote Friday froze the current LifeLine rate at $6.84 a month for most customers through 2012.

The program was expanded to include special rates for data services to consumers that get wireless equipment through the commission's Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program.

The five-member commission also approved a process that will allow low-income customers to receive LifeLine discounts on wireless telephone and voice-over-Internet systems.

"This major policy change is in response to the large number of low-income Californians that only have a wireless phone," said PUC President Michael Peevey.

Peevey promised to vigilantly monitor deregulated telephone company basic rates over the next two years to make sure that potential increases do not affect the affordability of LifeLine service.

After Jan. 1, 2013, LifeLine rates will be set annually as a percentage of their basic service cost.

"LifeLine rates will always be affordable," Peevey said.

-- Marc Lifsher


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