FCC Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel stood up for the little guy in an initial ruling on Tennis Channel’s discrimination complaint against Comcast. The judge ordered Comcast to pay a $375,000 fine and boost Tennis’ distribution after concluding that the No. 1 cable operator tried to squash competition by treating it differently than it does two similar sports services that Comcast owns: Versus and The Golf Channel. The Comcast-owned channels typically are part of the popular expanded basic package with ESPN and USA Network — but customers who want Tennis must pay an additional $5 or more each month for the Sports Tier that also includes NFL RedZone and ESPN Classic. Others including DirecTV, Dish Network, and Verizon’s FiOS tend to lump Tennis, Versus and Golf together. As a result, Comcast “has depressed the number of Tennis Channel’s subscribers, diminished the amount of its license fees, reduced its ability to procure valuable programming rights, and made it more difficult for Tennis Channel to sell advertising,” Sippel says. His decision, which closely tracks the case that the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau made in July, must be reviewed by the FCC’s commissioners before it take effect.
Comcast’s Sena Fitzmaurice says the company may challenge the ruling at the FCC and possibly the Court of Appeals. She says Comcast has a right “to minimize costs to consumers. … Many other companies with no ownership interest in Tennis Channel have made similar decisions and some refuse to carry Tennis Channel at all. Moreover, this decision purports to supersede an existing contract between two private parties, which is unprecedented in the program carriage context.”