THE TOUGH CUSTOMER - Six-day war: Network channels key to DirecTV dispute

Sam McKelvey is a 32-year veteran of law enforcement, and it shows in his just-the-facts bearing, clipped diction, and penchant for documentation.

In July 2005, McKelvey and his wife retired to Crozet from North Carolina. Although McKelvey subscribed to DirecTV in Carolina, here he signed up with Dish.

One year later, DirecTV called McKelvey to regain his business, specifically hearing his desire that he receive local stations. After the dish was installed, however, McKelvey discovered he could not receive local channels. He claims DirecTV then promised to provide network stations from either New York or Los Angeles– all he needed was a waiver from our local stations, which, he gathered, was a routine request. But the local affiliates would not agree, and so DirecTV could not pipe the big-city channels to McKelvey's dish.

He could have appealed, but by now, McKelvey says, he had "already endured one month without local channels and network programming." On August 11, he reached a DirecTV supervisor (whose name he cannot recall) who said he could terminate his agreement, penalty-free. McKelvey shipped DirecTV's equipment back on August 16.

Approximately two weeks later, though, McKelvey received a bill for $240.83, an early termination charge. Believing this to be an error, McKelvey called DirecTV numerous times, and wrote them on September 20. "The issue seems simple to me that DirecTV could not provide me with the service that we agreed upon in our contract," he wrote. "Your representative ... was clear that there would be no fee for voiding this contract."

DirecTV's response? It sent McKelvey a form letter dated October 11 basically saying, "Too bad," adding, "At DirecTV we strive to provide...outstanding customer service."

McKelvey then wrote DirecTV's president, saying, "I was a happy DirecTV customer for approximately 8 years. I hope we can resolve this matter."  

After that, he got a letter from a collection agency, which, when he called, told him that under the circumstances they would not pursue it further.

McKelvey then figured he'd let sleeping dogs lie, but last month he received another letter from another collections agency, Nationwide Credit. McKelvey says when he called them, they told him to pay up or it could mar his credit report. McKelvey has sent a letter challenging the debt's validity.

For its part, DirecTV claims that the termination fee is valid because when McKelvey first called them on August 5, he did not mention any problem with local stations, but just wanted– and received– a $10 per month discount on his Sports Programming package, and extended his agreement to a two-year term.

McKelvey says this never happened. Actually, his exact words were, "That's a bunch of crap." 

However, Vaughn Carter, DirecTV's public relations manager, asserting that DirecTV's service department is very "customer friendly," contends that if McKelvey had raised an objection to the local channel issue on August 5, he would have been let out of his agreement free and clear.

I've been scratching my head trying to understand DirecTV's response. What did or did not happen on August 5 is in dispute, but it is undisputed that on August 11, McKelvey did complain about the network channel issue. If McKelvey could get out of his agreement on August 5, why not on August 11? What difference could six days make?

Carter says the reason is that on August 5, when McKelvey extended his agreement, he had full knowledge that he might not be able to receive network stations.

McKelvey says he might just swallow hard and pay the $240 to Nationwide to keep his credit report clean. That is understandable, both a matter of practicality and pride, but if he's telling the story correctly, it doesn't explain the power of those six days.