MONEY Shopping

5 Things to Consider Before Signing a Contract With a Phone, TV or Internet Provider

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Simone Becchetti—Getty Images

Contracts limit freedom.

I see offers like these on a daily basis: “Get a new iPhone for only $99; requires two-year contract,” or “Get DIRECTV for only $29.99 a month for six months; requires a one-year commitment.”

These teasers may sound great, but the companies offering them always require that customers sign a contract — and that contract usually includes a variety of stipulations.

Before you sign a new contract with a cell phone provider, Internet provider, or a cable or satellite TV provider, carefully consider the terms. Insisting on service without a contract may save you money in the long run.

Key Considerations Before Entering into a Contract

1. It’s easy to sign up, not so easy to cancel
You can easily sign up for service with these providers just by signing a contract. The process may involve a credit check, and usually involves a verbal or online agreement. Once you agree to purchase the service, you also agree to the contractual obligations. The ease with which you enter into the contract stands in harsh contrast to the amount of effort it takes to cancel a contract for a service agreement.

When you first call the company to explain that you wish to cancel the service, the service representative will unfailingly attempt to talk you out of your decision. Frequently, the phone call precipitates a large amount of paperwork that you must complete before you are free of the contract.

2. Contracts limit freedom
Once you sign a contract, you lose the freedom to continue shopping around. You are locked in, and cannot respond to competing companies that may offer better deals. Additionally, if you plan to relocate, you may still have to fulfill the contractual obligations. Many service providers’ contracts include verbiage that states that moving away from the service area does not nullify the service contract.

3. No option for price negotiation
Service providers want you to sign a contract so they can lock you into a payment agreement. Regardless of the service, prices fluctuate – yet companies lock customers into a payment agreement, and then exclude them from future price reductions. No matter how good the initial offer seems, you almost always pay more in the long run for the cost of the contract, mitigating any initial savings from the introductory promotional offer.

4. Fine print can include undesirable stipulations
Service contracts usually include extensive terms and conditions. Familiarize yourself with the fine print before signing a contract. For example, when you sign up for a cell phone plan, you may have to purchase a pricy data plan. You may also have to pay full price for your “free” movie channels when the introductory promotion ends, or pay more for a faster Internet connection after an introductory promotional period ends.

To get the best deals, discuss the length of any promotional periods – as well as cancellation fees – with a representative before signing a contract. If you have to cancel your service early, you may have to pay termination fees. Cell phone cancellation fees typically range from $95 to $450. You can also find information about cancellation fees and promotional offers online. Most service providers offer some version of the contract’s terms and conditions on their websites.

5. No contract options exist!
Currently, I am not under contract with any of my providers. This includes my cell phone, Internet, and satellite TV services. I can price shop, compare service offerings, and switch companies whenever I choose. I will never sign a contract for a service agreement; plenty of no-contract options exist amongst service providers. I may not get the benefits of special promotional deals, but I am saving money in the long run by using this strategy.

Final Thoughts

If possible, do not sign contracts with service providers. Instead, shop around and find a company that offers a similar service without requiring a service contract.

If you absolutely must sign a contract, sign a short-term contract. Don’t get locked into any contracts that last for years.

Negotiate with service representatives to get the best introductory offers and to make your contract more valuable.

Remember, once you sign a contract, you won’t be able to utilize negotiation strategies and tactics later on. Make sure you’re really happy with the deals you receive before you sign on the dotted line.

More From Len Penzo dot Com:

MONEY Travel

10 Free Airline Amenities That Make Flying Fun Again

Gavin DeGraw sings his single, "Best I Ever Had" on a Southwest Airlines flight.
Southwest Airlines—Wieck Gavin DeGraw sings his single, "Best I Ever Had" on a Southwest Airlines flight.

From live concerts to Canadian beer.

With all the airline fees adding up, it’s hard to remember what perks you get as a passenger. However, there are still some airlines that show their appreciation for customers, dishing out amenities that make them stand out from the rest. These airlines have come up with everything from free alcoholic beverages and DirecTV to slippers and playing cards. Want to catch a surprise Imagine Dragons flight? Dying to flirt with that person you met at the gate? These amenities aren’t just available to first-class passengers either — they’re available to all passengers throughout the cabin. Now that’s something that stands out!

1. Free beer, wine, and snacks with Porter Airlines

Had a long day and need to unwind? You can do that at no charge on Porter Airlines, who fly throughout Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States. The airline offers free local Canadian beer, wine and snacks to all passengers. The luxury treatment continues with drinks served in real glassware and no middle seats. The amenities start before the flight, too, as the airline’s airport lounges are open to all passengers and provide free newspapers, snacks and Wi-Fi.

2. Live at 35 with Southwest

Imagine flying at 35,000 feet when your favorite band takes the stage — well, the aisle. As part of Southwest Airlines’ Live at 35 program, passengers have seen popular bands such as Imagine Dragons, Echosmith and Better Than Ezra perform a surprise concert on their flight. In addition to surprise shoes aboard Southwest flights, the Live at 35 program also offers passengers exclusive access to music festivals and events across the country. The airline also has Southwest-branded venues in New York, Denver, Dallas and Atlanta for loyal fans to watch live entertainment.

3. DirecTV on JetBlue

Travelers no longer have to worry about missing important television events such as the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards or a Real Housewives of Atlanta marathon when flying on JetBlue. The airline offers free DirecTV for all passengers who want to choose between ESPN, NBC, Bravo, Food Network, VH1 and even the Disney Channel. On the airline’s E190 and A320 planes, passengers have access to 36 channels, while the A321 planes offer more than 100 channels.

4. Slippers on Japan Airlines

Travelers fly in comfort on Japan Airlines: The airline provides slippers — in yellow, blue or pink — to all passengers looking to get a bit more relaxed on their long flight. Amenity kits with a toothbrush set, earplugs and eye mask are also available for passengers on longer routes. Flight attendants have pain relievers, motion sickness medicine, nasal sprays, bandages and more for passengers who are feeling under the weather. For those looking to send a note home, postcards and ballpoint pens are also available upon request. Talk about good service!

5. Do not disturb/wake me up sleep mask on Etihad

On board Etihad Airways, even economy passengers are sure to get a good night’s sleep. The airline offers a Sleep Tight amenity kit that includes socks, a toothbrush and earplugs as well as an eye mask that passengers can wear to notify flight attendants not to disturb them or wake them for meals! Etihad also give each passenger a full-sized fleece blanket, and on longer flights, the airline designed a pillow that converts from a standard pillow to a neck pillow for easy sleep.

6. Turkish coffee and Turkish Delight on Turkish Airlines

Whether you’re flying to or from Turkey, Turkish Airlines bring Turkish culture to the air. It’s the only airline that offers Turkish cuisine to all its passengers. Additionally, Business Class passengers will get the opportunity to nosh on Turkish Delight and Turkish coffee. The hors d’oeuvres and soup service are equally authentic, as they’re an important part of any Turkish meal. In both the Business and Comfort classes, meals are also served in porcelain dishes.

7. Seat-to-seat chat and ordering on Virgin America

Virgin America’s fleet of planes represent the new age of flying — from the colorful overhead lights to the personal screen available to each passenger. The personal touchscreen allows passengers to choose their own in-flight entertainment as well as order drinks and food at the touch of a button. Even cooler, the system allows passengers to send an ice-breaking drink, meal or snack to another passenger. It also features a chat room for co-workers to connect or for passengers to send a flirty message.

8. Playing cards and writing kits on Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines take the in-flight amenity offerings to a new level. They, too, offer a toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeshades, earplugs and knitted socks to each passenger. However, they also offer a complimentary set of Singapore Airlines postcards, playing cards and writing kits upon request. Travelers under the age of 12 are also treated to exclusive Cartoon Network collectible items on certain flights. Each passenger also gets a video monitor and handheld control unit to browse the entertainment offerings on KrisWorld, the airline’s famous in-flight entertainment system.

9. Celeb chef children’s meals on Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic tasked TV chef Lorraine Pascale with the job of creating signature dishes for the airline’s Upper Class passengers as well as a variety of children’s meals served throughout the entire cabin. Pascale created healthy dishes featuring fresh, nutritious and simple ingredients. Upper Class passengers can enjoy dishes such as a Thai beef salad with roasted pine nuts and chili dressing or a salmon, lentil and chorizo dish served with asparagus. The children’s meals include a macaroni-and-cheese dish with pancetta and chicken strips with potato wedges and crushed peas. Oh, to be a kid again.

10. Free Wi-Fi on Emirates

No matter how much you’d like to escape the office during your flight, there’s always some crisis that needs to be averted. On Emirates, passengers can stay connected for free with the airline’s free onboard Wi-Fi. Passengers can enjoy 10 MB of data for free or buy 500 MB for just $1. The airline offers each passenger an in-seat satellite phone and on-screen SMS and email services. Travelers can also follow the up-to-date flight progress via the airline’s map channel, Airshow. That way, you’ll know exactly when you’re landing to schedule any post-flight meetings or activities.

TIME space

Watch Ariane 5 Launch 2 Satellites Into Space

The communications satellites are expected to last about 15 years

Arianespace launched two communications satellites into orbit on Wednesday.

The DirecTV-15 satellite will provide broadcasts for the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, while the SKY México-1 satellite will provide HD broadcasts for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, according to a statement by Arianespace, the commercial satellite launch company pushing them into orbit.

MORE: See The Trailer For TIME’s Unprecedented Series: A Year In Space

Liftoff in French Guiana will occur seven seconds after the ignition of the main stage cryogenic engine, and the rocket will climb vertically for six seconds before turning East, according to SpaceFlightInsider. Both satellites are expected to last in space for approximately 15 years.

TIME Advertising

These Super Creepy Rob Lowe Ads Are Causing a Major Problem

They're weird—and hilarious—which is part of the issue

Comcast has a problem with “Super Creepy Rob Lowe,” and the cable giant now has the backing of the Better Business Bureau in its fight against the impossibly handsome actor and all his alter egos, also including “Crazy Hairy Rob Lowe” and “Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe.”

The BBB’s National Advertising Division, acting on a complaint from Comcast, says that DirecTV’s commercials featuring Lowe and his mutant versions make misleading claims on DirecTV’s behalf in their commercial spots. The ads started appearing late last year and have caused a big splash—mainly because they’re really weird and most of them are hilarious.

But the NAD now says the ads must be changed. For instance, it says DirecTV’s claim that it offers picture quality of “up to 1080p” is misleading because only a few programs with such high resolution are available.

The polished, confident Lowe is meant to represent DirecTV in the spots, while his alter egos are meant to represent the company’s cable competitors. “Don’t be like this me,” the “real” Lowe tells viewers. “Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.”

Even that line, which seems like standard-issue puffery, was too much for Comcast and the NAD, which said it improperly implies that DirecTV is superior to cable and should be dropped from the spots.

In its statement, the NAD said: “Although humor can be an effective and creative way for advertisers to highlight the differences between their products and their competitors, humor and hyperbole do not relieve an advertiser of the obligation to support messages that their advertisements might reasonably convey.”

That’s not the easiest sentence in the world to parse, but it seems to suggest that every statement in an advertisement — even one that simply claims the advertised product is better than other products — needs “support.” If universally applied, such a standard could take every third commercial off the air.

DirecTV plans to appeal the ruling, which isn’t binding, but if ignored could lead to a referral to a government agency.

DirecTV said in a statement to the NAD that it “the various Rob Lowe advertisements are so outlandish and exaggerated that no reasonable consumer would believe that the statements being made by the alter-ego characters are comparative or need to be substantiated.”

Maybe DirecTV should make new spots casting the alter egos as horrifying cable customer-service agents. That would be easy enough to “support.”

TIME

Shy Bladder Advocacy Group Takes Offense at Rob Lowe Commercial

Hilarity For Charity's (HFC) 3rd Annual Los Angeles HFC Variety Show
Araya Diaz—WireImage Rob Lowe attends the 3rd Annual Hilarity for Charity Variety Show to benefit the Alzheimer's Association, presented by Genworth at Hollywood Palladium on October 17, 2014 in Hollywood, California.

"It's a situation that a lot of people don't understand"

An advocacy group for people who suffer from shy bladder syndrome has taken offense at a DirecTV advertisement that features actor Rob Lowe standing at a urinal, unable to relieve himself due to excessive shyness.

Steve Soifer, CEO of the International Paruresis Association, told the Associated Press that advertisement pokes fun at a real-life ailment that afflicts roughly 7% of the population.

“We don’t mind if people have a little fun with it,” Soifer said in an interview with AP. “In this particular case, the portrayal is making it look ridiculous, that this guy is a loser for having a problem.”

A DirecTV spokesperson said they would continue running the ad, and that it was not meant to be taken literally.

[AP]

TIME celebrity

These Ads Show Rob Lowe Like You’ve Truly Never Seen Him Before

As in, really ugly and creepy

Well, this is literally the most hideous we’ve ever seen the notoriously gorgeous (and possibly ageless?) Rob Lowe look.

A new ad campaign from DirecTV features the West Wing and Parks and Recreation actor as a few distinct versions of himself. First, there’s him as a DirecTV customer, which is a regular, handsome, gregarious Rob Lowe. But there’s also him as a cable user, which is a disgusting and creepy Rob Lowe (see above) along with a completely hideous Rob Lowe (see below.)

We have to admit that this is some pretty effective advertising. If you’re saying that using DirecTV will make me as hot and youthful as Rob Lowe (even though he’s 26 years older than me), sign me up.

 

MONEY

How to Watch Every NFL Game This Season Without Going Broke

guys on couch cheering for football team
Michael Cogliantry—Getty Images

The 2014 NFL season starts Thursday, September 4. Here are 5 essential tips for tuning in to all the NFL action your eyeballs can handle throughout the regular season, and beyond.

Watching the NFL used to be simple. Fans could just plop down on the couch on Sunday afternoon, click on the local broadcast station, and they’d be contentedly screaming at the ineptness of the local team before they knew it. Then came exclusive NFL contracts with pay TV providers and sports channels, plus Thursday Night Football, plus a wide range of streaming options. Let’s not forget about the advent of fantasy football, which brought about the “need” for fans to keep tabs not just on their local team, but on the players they drafted across the league and relied upon to stomp on the teams run by their college buddies and office mates.

Stuff got complicated, at least compared to how it used to be. For help sorting out how and where to watch the NFL this season without spending a fortune, here are some handy tips.

All fans can watch some Thursday Night Football for free. According to NFL.com, “Thursday Night Football” starts one week from today, on September 11. That’s silly, of course. Even CBS Sports acknowledges that Thursday Night Football begins tonight, September 4, with rival NBC broadcasting the season-opening matchup of the Green Bay Packers versus the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Anyone with access to free network TV can watch the game.

What the NFL is referring to is that September 11 is when the NFL Network begins its airing of Thursday Night Football. But even then, it’s not necessary for fans to have a pay TV package that includes the NFL Network. For the first time, seven Thursday night games, between September 11 and October 23, are being broadcast on both the NFL Network and CBS. An additional Thursday night game will be aired on NBC on Thanksgiving night. So unlike in the recent past, when the NFL Network had exclusive rights to almost all Thursday night games, even cheapskate fans without a pricey pay TV package get to tune in to some pro football on Thursdays. What’s more, whereas in the past Thursday night games tended to be dominated by mediocre matchups, this year’s lineup features several premier rivalries of teams with big fan bases, including Steelers-Ravens (September 11), Giants-Redskins (September 25), and Jets-Patriots (October 16).

On Sundays, check out networks for free, or DirecTV at a price. Fox and CBS will broadcast NFL Sunday afternoon games featuring local-market teams—and another game or two, usually—and NBC is yet again the network destination for Sunday Night Football.

For fans who want the freedom of tuning into any NFL game their hearts desire on Sundays, DirecTV is the go-to provider. Thanks to an exclusive contract with the NFL, DirecTV offers two packages to subscribers: the NFL Sunday Ticket ($40 per month for six months) and the supersized NFL Sunday Ticket Max ($55 per month for six months). Both options allow subscribers to tune in to any out-of-market NFL game on Sunday. The Max package comes with extra features including the Red Zone Channel (shows highlights and scoring plays of all Sunday games) and, notably, the ability to stream Sunday NFL games on your computer, tablet, or phone.

ESPN has a stranglehold on Monday Night Football. Nothing new here: ESPN has the rights to air Monday Night Football. The MNF action begins with a double header on Monday, September 8, starting with a 7:10 ET kickoff of the Detroit Lions hosting the New York Giants, followed immediately by a matchup of the Arizona Cardinals hosting the San Diego Chargers at 10:20 ET. If you don’t have a pay TV package, or you don’t have a package that includes ESPN, you’re out of luck (though there are some less-than-fully-legal streaming methods out there). Monday Night Football is available for streaming—for subscribers only—at WatchESPN.com. Subscribers have the option of tuning in via desktop, tablet, Google Chromecast, Xbox Live Gold, and several other methods, but not through phones.

Here’s how to watch games in just 30 minutes. In addition to ESPN and DirecTV streaming options, a variety of Game Rewind packages are offered by the NFL, allowing fans to watch full game replays on-demand on your choice of devices after they’ve aired on TV. As a bonus, subscribers can use a Condensed Game feature, in which the typical, stretched-out 3.5-hour football viewing experience is boiled down to roughly 30 action-packed minutes. Fans have the option of buying Game Rewind for a single team ($30 for the season) or all teams ($40) during the regular season. A Season Plus package ($70) includes all of the above, as well as access to view the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl—on-demand, after they’ve aired on TV.

(The alternative to Game Rewind is simply recording games on a DVR, then fast-forward or replay to your heart’s content.)

Yet another streaming option is available for subscribers to Verizon Wireless More Everything plan. Verizon used to charge $5 monthly for subscribers to live stream nationally televised games on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, but it dropped the fee for this season. Fans can also use their devices for live streaming local-market games on Sunday afternoons.

For now, hated blackout rules remain in effect. In recent years, the NFL has received pressure from fan groups as well as the FCC to get rid of blackout rules, which stipulate that networks will not broadcast local home games if the stadium isn’t at least 85% sold out within 72 hours of kickoff. The rules threatened to ruin several Sundays for many fans around the country last season, even during the playoffs, but several teams ran last-minute ticket promotions to boost attendance and thereby avoid blacking out broadcasts. In a few cases, local corporations or the NFL franchises themselves bought thousands of tickets and distributed them free of charge so that games wouldn’t be blacked out.

Lately, the league has been threatening to move all NFL games to cable if the FCC insists on eliminating the blackout rule. That, in effect, would black out the games for everyone who doesn’t have a pay TV package. So for now at least, the blackout rules remain, and fans of local teams that have trouble selling out—Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, we’re looking at you—are likely to face the choice of paying up for a ticket or missing the game a few times this season.

TIME technology

Comcast, AT&T Say They’re Not Big Enough Yet

Comcast
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

At a Senate hearing ahead of major merger melees

Two of the biggest players in the telecom industry faced off against a public interest group, a trade group and a satellite company at a Senate hearing Wednesday in a debate that will help set the stage for upcoming battles over the future of broadband, television and streaming video.

The hearing comes just as federal regulators are staffing up to review two mammoth mergers: One between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and another between AT&T and DirecTV. To some degree, the hearing was only ceremonial: Congress won’t have any direct say over whether federal regulators approve or deny the mergers. But political winds in Washington can affect regulators’ moods, and the back-and-forth gave members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a chance to publicly speak their minds on the mergers.

While the discussion at the hearing was unflaggingly respectful, it touched, just below the surface, on what has become a fiercely ideological war with regard to the future of TV, with each side presenting a vision incompatible with the other’s.

Comcast and AT&T argued that massive consolidation in the telecom industry is good for consumers, good for innovation, and good for the free market. They warned that if the government does not allow the mergers to go through, incumbent telecom companies would no longer be able to invest in basic Internet infrastructure, leaving consumers to pay more for fewer Internet and TV options.

Representatives from advocacy group Public Knowledge, a TV writer’s guild, and satellite TV company Dish made the opposite case. They said that recent consolidation in the telecom industry has been terrible for consumers, driven up prices and driven down the quality of customer service. They also said the lack of competition has squashed innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.

At the center of the discussion was Americans’ shifting TV-viewing habits. When Americans want to watch TV, they’re increasingly bypassing traditional set-top boxes, instead opting for their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen.

That trend has been the driving force behind skyrocketing broadband subscriptions—a major cash cow for cable companies and for telecom companies that offer services faster than DSL. AT&T’s revenue from its U-Verse high-speed broadband business was up 29% from last year according to a recent quarterly report, for example. Comcast, which already has more than 21 million broadband subscribers, says the broadband business is one of its fastest-growing offerings.

That so many Americans are streaming more video online has also made online TV and video content companies, like Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo, fundamentally dependent on telecom companies’ pipes to reach customers. Public Knowledge’s Gene Kimmelman argued that no online video streaming company can exist without going through broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, whose services are necessary to deliver streaming content to consumers. That sets up a potential problem, as Comcast could be incentivized not to carry Netflix or YouTube content as quickly as its own video offerings (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, a major content production company).

“Everyone who wants to make the online video system works needs to make a deal with Comcast,” he said.

Also addressed during the hearing was many Americans’ frustration at having to pay large bills for pay-TV—bills that have risen faster than inflation—to receive hundreds of channels. The non-profit consumers rights group, Consumers Union, has said that at least two-thirds of pay-TV customers [PDF] would prefer to pay less for a handful of programs that they actually watch. The disconnect between these two methods—known as “bundling” versus “a al carte”—is at the heart of the future of online video.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to spend $120 for 500 channels,” said Jeffrey Blum, a senior vice president of Dish, the second-largest satellite company in the country after DirecTV. But fixing the problem, he said, requires going up against incumbent telecom companies, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which rely on bundling to underwrite their pay TV services, and would lose out if most Americans simply cut their pay-TV bill and began streaming shows online. Popular networks like ESPN would also lose out; in the current system, the telecom companies pay them large fees to redistribute their content.

Still, Blum said, there is already “too much power in the hands of too few” in the broadband space. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable “will have the incentive and ability to stifle competition,” he said.

Both Cohen and AT&T’s senior executive VP John Stankey dismissed concerns about anticompetitive behavior. In previous testimony before Congress, Comcast’s executive VP David Cohen has said that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not affect competition since the companies do not currently compete in any geographic region, and that Comcast has “only to gain” from more people streaming video online. The more demand there is for online video, “the more demand there is for our broadband service,” he said at a previous hearing.

In February, Comcast made a bid to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion; in May, AT&T’s bid for DirecTV was worth $48.5 billion. Neither deal has yet to pass regulatory muster.

Both Cohen and Stankey also reiterated their companies’ commitment to the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct rules on “net neutrality,” the notion that broadband providers treat all content that passes over their pipes equally. While both expressed their opposition to some public interest groups’ hopes that the telecom industry would be recategorized as a “Title II” industry, giving the FCC much more regulatory control over broadband, they said they supported the FCC’s newly proposed net neutrality rules.

Those rules have come under fire because they allow broadband companies to redirect some content to a “fast lane,” while relegating most content to a slower, regular lane. Cohen said that while he “didn’t understand” what “fast lanes and slow lanes” even were, he said it was a non-issue. “We don’t have any,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to develop any.”

MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

140716_EM_cable_1
Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

TIME mergers

Dish Network Slams Potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Dish Network
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images A satellite television system is installed at a residence in Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 6, 2013.

Satellite operator Dish Network has come out against the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Updated July 9, 4:45 p.m.

Satellite operator Dish Network has come out against the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The pay-TV giant voiced its concerns with the pending merger in a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week, according to a filing released Wednesday.

“The pending Comcast/Time Warner Cable (“TWC”) merger presents serious competitive concerns for the broadband and video marketplaces and therefore should be denied,” Dish wrote in its filing. “There do not appear to be any conditions that would remedy the harms that would result from the merger.”

Specifically, Dish said that a merged Comcast-Time Warner Cable would be able to undermine over-the-top video services such as Netflix by altering streaming speeds either on the so-called “last mile” of the Internet delivered into people’s homes or at interconnection points where video content is transferred among various Internet providers. Dish also argued that the merged company would be able to leverage its size in anti-competitive ways by forcing programmers to offer content at a lower cost. Smaller providers such as Dish would end up being forced to pay more to make up for networks’ lost revenue, the company argued.

In a response, Comcast Vice President of Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice said Dish not wanting stronger competitors wasn’t surprising or new. “Dish has long been one of our most vigorous competitors, and unlike us has a national footprint available in tens of millions of more homes than a combined Comcast –Time Warner Cable,” she said in an email. “Any issues regarding NBCUniversal programming and other video services, whether they be traditional or over the top are already amply covered by pre-existing FCC rules and deal conditions.” (As part of the terms of its deal to purchase NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to adhere to certain net neutrality principles until 2018).

Dish is one of the odd men out at a moment of mass consolidation in the pay-TV industry. In addition to the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, AT&T and DirecTV are also seeking regulatory approval to merge. Dish said that merger also presented “competitive concerns” because the combined company would be able to leverage programming content to the detriment of customers.

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