Tennis Channel Win Major Court Case Against Comcast

December 21, 2011

Comcast Corp. has lost a major court case to Tennis Channel on Tuesday when a Federal Communications Commission judge effectively ordered the cable giant to carry the channel on a more widely available tier of service.

In the decision, Administrative Law Judge Richard L. Sippel ruled that the Tennis Channel had proved Comcast had discriminated against it by relegating the outlet to tiers of service available in fewer homes than Comcast’s own Golf Channel and Versus sports channel. He ordered Comcast to stop discriminating against the channel as soon as “practicable,” and pay a $375,000 fine.

“In general, the larger the interest that Comcast has in a network, the greater the distribution provided by Comcast,” Mr. Sippel wrote in the decision, which relied on federal rules that bar cable operators that own channels from discriminating against channels owned by others. The Tennis Channel is owned by a group that includes several private-equity firms, although satellite-TV firms DirecTV Inc. and Dish Network Corp. have small interests.

Comcast said it will appeal the ruling to the full FCC.

“Comcast has the contractual right to distribute Tennis Channel as it does currently, and Comcast firmly believes that the exercise of that right to minimize costs to consumers is not discrimination,” the company said in a statement, adding that the decision to supersede their contract is “unprecedented.”

The ruling, if upheld, 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, for instance, 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.