Judge Rules In Favor Of Tennis Channel In Dispute With Comcast
FCC Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel has "ruled in favor of the Tennis Channel in its program carriage complaint against Comcast," according to John Eggerton of BROADCASTING & CABLE. The ruling "marks the first time a network has prevailed in a program carriage complaint against a cable operator, both cable operators and program carriage complaint filers and should mean a big boost in the number of cable subs who can get the channel." Comcast will have to "pay $375,000 and is prohibited from discriminating against Tennis vis-à-vis Versus (NBC Sports Network as of Jan. 2) or Golf Channel, which Sippel determined were similarly situated, and which are affiliated with Comcast's NBCUniversal." Sippel noted Tennis Channel, Versus and Golf Channel were "sufficiently similar -- sports channels targeting similar audiences -- that disparate treatment constituted discrimination." The judge also ruled Comcast's "discrimination against Tennis Channel in favor of Golf Channel and Versus was based solely on affiliation." Comcast owns both Golf Channel and Versus. However, Sippel did "not agree with Tennis Channel that its tier placement threatened its survival, but said that it did not have to show it would go under to show that Comcast had unreasonably restrained its ability to compete." Comcast Corporation VP/Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice "pointed out that the decision is still subject to review by the full commission and that it will take its case to an appeals court if necessary" (BROADCASTINGANDCABLE.com, 12/20).
SUBSCRIBER BOOST: Tennis Channel Chair & CEO Ken Solomon said of the ruling, "They were ordered to proceed as soon as is practicable. So we’re preparing to add between 20 million and 23 million households." In N.Y., Richard Sandomir notes that would boost Tennis Channel’s "number of subscribers to more than 50 million; currently, Comcast customers have to pay an extra few dollars to get the tennis network on a digital sports tier." Solomon said the ruling is a "watershed for programmers." He "declined to say what the effect of the decision would be on the Tennis Channel's long-running dispute with Cablevision" (N.Y. TIMES, 12/21). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Schechner & Futterman note if upheld, the ruling "could force broader distribution of a host of smaller cable channels -- especially sports channels whose rising costs have become a source of concern in the cable business." Sports-team owners could have an "easier time getting distribution for their own regional sports networks." Currently their main obstacle is the "unwillingness of cable operators to put a network of interest to only a fraction of their viewers on a tier available to a broad number of their subscribers." But if independent owners can now "claim discrimination in markets where the cable operator owns a sports channel, they may be able to wrestle wider carriage-which would likely drive up cable bills." That effect of the ruling could be "felt relatively soon in Los Angeles, where the Major League Baseball's Dodgers are for sale" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 12/21).