Virgin Media and Sky could face a ‘supercomplaint’ following a row between the two media companies which has left hundreds of thousands of customers without their favourite channels.
The National Consumer Council (NCC) said it would consider invoking its statutory powers to push for a review of the digital television market from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) if the situation is not resolved.
Talks broke down yesterday in the bitter row over how much the cable channel Virgin Media – formerly known as NTL:Telewest – pays Sky to screen its channels.
Channels including Sky One and Sky News disappeared from screens shortly after midnight, when the current contract between the two cable platforms expired.
Fans of hit series such as 24 and Lost are now unable to follow their favourite shows. The channels affected are Sky One, Sky Travel, Sky News and Sky Sports News.
The NCC has the right to submit a ‘supercomplaint’ over a feature of a market which is ‘significantly harming the interests of consumers’.
A supercomplaint can lead to enforcement action by the OFT, the launch of a market study, or referral to the Competition Commission.
The NCC’s Deputy Chief Executive Philip Cullum said: ‘The fallout from the dispute between Virgin Media and BSkyB is bad news for consumers. Over three million Virgin Media customers have been left high and dry.
‘They have lost some of the most popular channels, they aren’t getting a discount, and they’ve had very little notice.’
He said he believed Virgin Media customers had the right to cancel their subscriptions without penalty, and called on the company to confirm this.
The NCC will make a decision by the end of March as to whether to exercise its statutory powers under the Enterprise Act.
‘In the meantime, we urge the two companies to put consumers first, by reaching a speedy solution and being crystal clear about consumers’ rights,’ Mr Cullum said.
Virgin said it welcomed the NCC announcement. It added: ‘In recent months we have made major enhancements to our TV service, including significant discounts on Sky’s sports channels. In view of this and the declining viewership of the Sky channels, the withdrawal of Sky’s basic channels does not breach our agreement with customers.
‘However, if any of our TV customers wish to cancel their contract, we will allow them to do so at any time up to the end of March.’
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