Tennis Channel complaint with FCC accuses Comcast of discriminating against its programming

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tennis Channel accuses Comcast of discrimination

WASHINGTON — The Tennis Channel is accusing Comcast Corp. of discriminating against its cable TV network by relegating it to a premium sports tier that reaches only a small number of subscribers, even as Comcast-owned sports channels get much wider distribution.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the Tennis Channel charges the nation’s largest cable TV provider with violating FCC rules that prohibit such operators from favoring channels that they own over those from other companies.

The Tennis Channel, a small, independent network, reaches about 2.6 million homes through Comcast. The network maintains that Comcast carries it primarily on the premium Sports Entertainment Package, which costs an extra $5 to $8 per month, to protect Comcast’s own sports channels from competition.

Comcast’s Golf Channel and Versus, which shows hockey, cycling and other sporting events, reach about 21 million homes apiece through Comcast’s expanded basic cable lineups.

Ken Solomon, the Tennis Channel’s chairman and chief executive, called the case “a litmus test” for all channels that are not owned by the cable TV operators themselves.

“We simply want to be treated comparably to the way Comcast treats the sports program services it owns,” Solomon said in a statement.

Wider distribution would allow the Tennis Channel to bring in more advertising dollars and collect more money from Comcast, which pays the network on a per-subscriber basis. Comcast says the expanded distribution that the Tennis Channel is seeking would cost it hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of contract.

Comcast would not provide details on the per-subscriber fee or the duration of the contract, and Tennis Channel officials did not immediately return messages for comment.

The case, filed Tuesday, may attract attention because Comcast is seeking regulatory approval to take a controlling interest in NBC Universal’s broadcast networks, cable channels and movie studios.

Although regulators are expected to approve the deal, they are also likely to impose significant conditions, including one that would prohibit Comcast from dropping smaller, independent channels from its lineup.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it would be the agency reviewing antitrust questions surrounding the deal. The FCC must also approve the combination, including the transfer of the NBC broadcast licenses to Comcast.

For its part, Comcast said it fully honors the terms of its 2005 contract with the Tennis Channel. That contract allows Comcast to carry the network on many different tiers, including as part of the Sports Entertainment Package, the Philadelphia-based company said.

Comcast added that many other subscription TV providers also distribute the Tennis Channel on premium tiers, while offering Golf Channel and Versus much more widely. Cablevision Systems Corp., which serves the New York metropolitan area, is among them.

Disputes over where cable TV providers place channels and how much they pay for carrying them have become more common in recent years.

Last year, Comcast settled a long-running legal battle with the National Football League over carrying the NFL Network on its system.

That dispute began in 2006 after Comcast said it was moving the NFL Network to the premium package because it didn’t want to pay the higher fees that the NFL was demanding after adding eight live games to the network. The NFL sued Comcast and brought the matter before the FCC, claiming that Comcast was punishing the league because Comcast didn’t get rights to show those games on its Versus channel.

The impasse nearly led to a blackout of the NFL Network on Comcast, but the two sides reached an agreement in May after the NFL agreed to reduce its price.

Separately, News Corp. threatened to withhold its Fox television network and a half-dozen cable channels from some Time Warner Cable Inc. systems in a dispute over how much the cable operator paid for carrying those networks. A blackout was averted when the two sides reached a deal about a day past the expiration of the old contract last week.

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