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FCC sets hearing for Tennis Channel dispute with Comcast

The FCC will hear the Tennis Channel’s program carriage complaint against Comcast March 29 in light of both parties being unable to resolve their dispute over channel position through mediation.

Both sides have agreed to the logistics leading up to the March hearing.

The privately held Tennis Channel, based in Santa Monica, CA, has been seeking better channel placement that would reach a greater number of Comcast subscribers. Comcast currently offers the Tennis Channel as part of a package of sports networks for which it charges customers a higher fee. As a result, the Tennis Channel is not as widely distributed as a channel in a basic service package.

Because a cable network receives payment based on the number of homes that receive it, moving out of the higher-priced sports tier would mean more revenue for the Tennis Channel. It has asked the FCC to intervene, arguing that Comcast has put it at an unfair disadvantage because its own sports networks, including the Golf Channel and Versus, are on the basic tier and available to all of its customers.

Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel last week canceled a scheduled Dec. 14 prehearing conference after both parties agreed to and presented their own expedited discovery timetable for motions, testimony and depositions. The discovery process ends and final depositions are due March 11, with trial briefs and exhibits due March 18.

The FCC designated the dispute for a hearing in September, noting that there is “substantial and material question of fact as to whether Comcast has engaged in conduct that violates the program carriage provisions of the act and the commission’s rules.”

The commission also gave the parties the option of making one last try through outside mediation, which both sides agreed to: It didn’t work. Now, the judge will make a finding based on the evidence presented, but the FCC has the ultimate decision on the complaint. The FCC’s Media Bureau said in referring the complaint to the judge that on the face of it, the Tennis Channel has made a case for program carriage discrimination by Comcast.

Comcast said the Tennis Channel agreed to be placed on the sports tier when Comcast helped launch the startup five years ago. Comcast also noted that many other large cable operators offer the Tennis Channel in a more-exclusive tier.

“Far from discriminating against Tennis Channel, we are carrying it in a manner similar to many other distributors and fully honoring the terms of the parties’ agreement,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast vice president for government communications.

The Tennis Channel argues that Comcast is favoring its own similarly situated networks by placing them on more widely viewed tiers.