FCC Grants Hearing for Tennis Channel Beef with Comcast

WASHINGTON: The Federal Communications Commission has granted The Tennis Channel a hearing regarding a discrimination complaint against Comcast. The case is set to be heard by an Administrative Law Judge Oct. 18 if the parties don’t resolve the issue before then.

“The existing record... makes clear that there are substantial and material questions of fact as to whether Comcast has engaged in conduct that violates the programcarriage provisions of... the commission’s rules,” the hearing order states. “We therefore initiate this hearing proceeding.”

Commission rules hold that cable and satellite TV providers can’t unfairly discriminate against networks in which they hold no ownership. Tennis Channel is a stand-alone channel owned by a group of investors that include tennis pros Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Comcast, by comparison, has 24 million cable subscribers in 39 states and owns pieces of the Golf Channel, the MLB Network, the NHL Network NBA TV and a slew of other national networks, including the sports-focused Versus.

Comcast generally carries Versus, Golf and its regional sports networks on its expanded basic and/or digital starter tiers. Tennis is carried in a premium sports package, which has less distribution. After affecting some technical and programming improvements, Tennis sought to be moved to a more widely distributed tier. Comcast said ixnay. Tennis filed the complaint.

The FCC accepted Tennis’s assertion that it competed with Golf and Versus for viewers and advertisers, and that Comcast afforded it “differential treatment.” Tennis claims this differential treatment impedes its ability to compete.

The commission issued its order Tuesday, giving Tennis and Comcast 10 days to elect Alternative Dispute Resolution. The hearing proceeding will be suspended during that period and remain so if both do elect ADR. If no settlement is reached, the dispute will then go before the judge. -- Deborah D. McAdams