A Match to Watch: Tennis Channel v. Comcast

Back in 2010, we reported on the merger between Comcast and NBC, which was in the works at the time. One of the issues that came up was how programming is chosen.

At the time, the Tennis Channel had filed a suit against Comcast, alleging that Comcast did not make Tennis Channel programming available to as many subscribers as the Golf Channel and NBC Sports (both belong to Comcast). Comcast, under the Communications Act and Commission rules, is required to place channels owned by others on tiers equal to its own similar types of channels and can't play favorites.

The FCC had reviewed the case at various levels for two years (there was an appeal) and finally, in July of this year, issued a decision in favor of the Tennis Channel. The Tennis Channel alleged discrimination, Comcast argued the Tennis Channel was using the FCC to get out of a contract it wanted to escape. According to a Meg James LA Times article:

The FCC ordered Comcast to provide the Tennis Channel with distribution comparable to the two sports channels, which would effectively increase its coverage by about 18 million homes, and force Comcast to pay Tennis Channel millions of dollars more each year in programming fees.

It was the first time that a major cable operator has been found in violation of federal anti-discrimination program carriage rules that were established in 1993.

Comcast was ordered to remedy the situation within 45 days, a window that would make the Tennis Channel available in more homes during one of the biggest tennis events of the year, the U.S. Open in New York. The channel is currently available in about 34 million homes nationally.

Comcast immediately asked for a stay from the remedy, appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Comcast was granted the stay while the case is argued on appeal. Once again, Comcast's army of lawyers  are strategically using the court as a way to slow down an adversary's remedy.

We expect to see more video legal issues arise in the near future. As broadband transforms the way people receive video signals, how those signals are governed will inevitably affect license agreements, rules, and regulations.

In an informative blog post, Susan Crawford gives us the heads up on where problems dwell and the attitudes that will drive litigation and policy. Unfortunately, now that few people watch video for free, the usual participants will tussle for a very large pie. Will the consumer be considered? Early indications don't seem to suggest that. From Crawford:

The consumer, who is being squeezed the most, would like to watch what he/she wants, when he/she wants, and doesn’t want to be stuck with enormous must-buy bundles. But no one is talking about that.

The ever-growing Comcast is a threat to those who have innovative ideas for video content. If you want people to see your content, you need to get it in a cable lineup or online... but the big cable providers are trying to wrestle back control over online video with monthly bandwidth caps.

And even when Comcast does violate the law, it knows how to string out the process long enough that the harmed party has to fold or negotiate directly with them because they'll go bankrupt waiting for justice.