Consumers 'better off before' on TV contracts

Right to end contract if channel line-up is rendered unattractive

The Consumers' Association has promised to hound the authorities over their handling of last year's removal of popular stations Comedy Central and Living TV from the line-ups of TV providers Melita and Go.

Antoine Grima, the association's lawyer, describes the recent voluntary agreement reached by the consumer authority with the two telecoms companies as “a step backwards”.

“Consumers were better off without it,” he argues.

The agreement ensures that if five channels (or more than 15 per cent of the channels) are removed from the line-up during a one-year period, consumers can withdraw from their contracts.

It was reached after an eight-month “investigation” called by Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said, following a report in The Times which quoted a Living TV spokesman saying the providers were told to stop broadcasting the channel illegally.

(Comedy Central never made a statement on the matter.) When the story broke last December, the Consumer and Competition Department said its investigation would establish whether the service providers had the rights to broadcast both channels and whether consumer law was breached.

The investigation was also meant to establish whether consumers deserved a refund but these issues remain unaddressed.

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority, as the department is now called, simply laid out an agreement with the two providers and left the other matters “pending”, according to Dr Grima.

He maintains that consumers were better off before, when a ruling by the Malta Communications Authority last year indicated that it would evaluate matters on a case by case basis, taking into consideration “content”.

In its September 2010 decision over Melita's removal of four popular football channels, the MCA had left an element of leeway for each channel's removal to be judged on its merits. The MCA pointed out that these channels were popular and that “any unilateral variation of the original channel line which in any way substantially changes the line-up constitutes a material change to the original terms and conditions”.

This, according to Dr Grima, meant that consumers would not have to wait for five channels to be removed before taking action because the MCA would intervene even if one channel was removed.

Ideally, consumers who subscribe to a TV service should have the right to end their contract if they feel the changes in channel line-up render the service unattractive to the consumer, he says.

“If I sign up for a contract with Melita or Go because I love the Wine Channel, for example, but then, the next day, the Wine Channel is removed, why should I be forced to continue paying for say two years?” He says if this is not acceptable to the providers, consumers must be fully informed of what they are signing up for.

The association was not consulted over the Living and Comedy channels issue. But Dr Grima fears that there was not even any consultation with the MCA, since these agreements seem to challenge its September 2010 decision.

Furthermore, the MCCAA, which was supposedly given more teeth through recent changes in the law, said it was not its remit to investigate whether the channels were broadcast legally.

Various consumer-protection related laws were amended this year, he says, questioning why this matter was not seen to despite the ongoing investigation.

Dr Grima points out that the MCCAA should have at least passed on the information it has to the authority whose remit it is to investigate such matters. Instead, it did not say whose this remit was.

“Why is there someone who can investigate the legality of Dreambox but not the issue of whether these companies had the rights to broadcast Living or Comedy?” Meanwhile, the MCCAA and the MCA have already told The Times it was not in their remit to delve into whether the two channels were transmitted illegally. Even the Broadcasting Authority said it could not do anything about the matter.

Dr Grima said the association will set up meetings with MCCAA and the MCA to follow up the matter accordingly.

published in the Times of Malta of the 17th October 2011