A bill showing cable company TV fees.
  • Sixty-nine percent of Americans with cable TV say their bills had unexpected fees, according to a new CR survey.
  • Fees added an average of 24 percent to cable bills.
  • The only way to avoid most of the fees is to cancel cable TV service.
  • Read below for a list of common cable fees.

Among all the sneaky, add-on fees that plague American consumers these days, none are more common than those lurking in their cable bills.

As documented in the just-released CR Cable Bill Report 2019, 69 percent of Americans who had used telecom services in the previous two years said they experienced unexpected fees, according to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,057 U.S. adults conducted in 2018.

And those fees can add up. When CR asked consumers to share their cable TV bills with us last year as part of our What the Fee?! program, hundreds of members sent in their bills. Our analysis showed that company-imposed fees cost added more than $37 per month—or 24 percent—to the base cost of their TV package. 

The total amounts to nearly $450 per year in unexpected fees just on TV service alone.

“With the proliferation of add-on fees, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to find out the full cost of a cable package before they get locked into a contract—and cable companies count on this,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “These confusing, often misleadingly named charges continue to drive up consumer bills, even if you lock in a promotional rate.”

More on Cable TV

In addition to cable TV fees, Americans in our nationally representative survey complained about unexpected fees for other services, such as for airlines, hotels, car rentals, and event tickets. 

When it came to cable companies, Consumer Reports received the largest number of complaints about Comcast’s Xfinity service, but members cited a number of providers. Comcast and other companies we contacted all said that the fees help them pay for their own increasing costs for providing content. But that doesn’t explain why they don’t present the full price for service in the promotional materials consumers rely on for choosing a provider and a plan.

The only way to really eliminate most of the fees is to cut the cable TV cord entirely and use streaming services or an antenna instead. To stream, you’ll still need internet service, but that typically comes with few fees other than $5 to $10 per month to rent a modem or router. And you can avoid that by buying your own equipment.

Cost of Cable Fees in an Average
Monthly Cable Bill (2018)
Cost of Cable Fees in an Average Monthly Cable Bill (2018)

Consumer Reports analyzed 787 cable bills from around the U.S. and found that people were being charged far more for TV service than the price they’d seen advertised and that they’d expected to pay.

Another step is to join CR’s effort to insist on honest pricing from telecom providers, including the full cost of the service and no surprise fees in small print. 

When you’re complaining, it helps to understand what’s on your bill. Here are common fees you may see.

Broadcast TV fee: Cable com­panies say this defrays costs they pay to local networks, such as ABC and CBS. Prices range from about $4 to $11 per month.

Regional sports surcharge fee: This compensates cable companies for what they pay regional sports networks—though those networks are sometimes owned by the cable companies themselves. The cost: $7 to $12 per month—even if you don’t watch sports.

Set-top box or receiver fees: Most cable companies charge $7 to $13 per month to rent the boxes needed to receive signals. But Comcast, for example, offers an app that lets you get content directly on a smart TV or streaming device without the box. Or you can avoid boxes with a device such as TiVo.

DVR service: The ability to record shows can cost $10 to $25 per month and is often one of the bigger fees in a cable bill. But because many channels now offer on-demand replays of popular shows, you may find that you can live without a DVR.

Administrative, regulatory, and gross surcharge fees: Charged by cell-phone carriers, these typically come to $1 or $2 per account or phone line. Companies say the charge offsets their expenses, like taxes and regulatory and legal costs. In other words, the cost of doing business.

Federal universal service charges: These can be up to 20 percent of your total cell-phone bill, but they’re for a good cause. They offset the cost of providing telecom services to people with low incomes or who live in rural communities, as well as to schools, libraries, and rural healthcare facilities.

What the Fee?!

Are you tired of the endless stream of add-on charges that appear on your bills? On the TV show “Consumer 101,” a Consumer Reports expert explains to host Jack Rico how to avoid these pesky fees.