SBJ/20101025/This Week's Issue

Dish awaits RSN arbitration ruling

A little more than a week after the 19 regional sports networks of Fox Sports Net and MSG’s two RSNs went dark on Dish Network, the satellite company was locked in a dispute with another large RSN group.

Dish Network has been out of contract with most of the eight Comcast SportsNet RSNs it carries since the summer. Comcast has been seeking significant increases for its RSNs, which are among the most expensive channels on cable systems today, and Dish Network has balked.

Rather than allow the channels to go dark — as happened during similar disputes with FSN and MSG — Dish elected to allow a Federal Communications Commission arbitrator to decide the carriage terms for the channels.

Dish Network is allowed to take any Comcast SportsNet RSN to federal arbitration thanks to a condition placed on Comcast’s 2006 acquisition of Adelphia Communications Corp. that allows a distributor like Dish to ask an FCC-mandated arbitrator to settle any pricing dispute.

Formal arbitration hearings were held earlier this month, Oct. 11-12, at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C., regarding Dish Network’s carriage of Comcast SportsNet California, which has been out of contract since September 2009. Executives involved included Comcast Programming Group President Jeff Shell and Dish’s Dave Shull, senior vice president of programming, and Carolyn Crawford, vice president.

Even though Dish Network’s carriage deals with most of Comcast’s RSNs have expired, the hearing dealt only with CSN California. As part of the conditions noted in the 2006 acquisition, Dish can arbitrate only one RSN at a time.

The outcome of the hearing is significant. It’s the first one between Dish and Comcast and should set a precedent for how the other Comcast RSNs are negotiated in terms of price and tiering. It also could play into Dish Network’s offers to FSN and MSG.

Last week, MSG said it would be willing to enter binding arbitration with Dish Network. Fox has maintained that it’s not interested in allowing a third party to decide rates for its RSNs.

Dish Network’s deal with Fox’s broadcast channel ends at the end of October. Fox is hoping that leverage from that, plus the start of the NBA season — with the NBA being carried heavily by Fox’s RSNs — will force Dish to cut a deal.

While there’s no formal timeline for the Comcast ruling, a decision is expected in the next two months. It’s “baseball-style” arbitration, meaning that the arbitrator picks one side or the other.

Dish Network has never carried Comcast SportsNet Northwest or The mtn., so those channels couldn’t be part of future arbitration. Dish’s deal with SportsNet New York expires in March. Currently, SNY is the only New York-area RSN that Dish carries.

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