FCC Judge Puts Access-Complaints Hearing on Hold

Hearing on hold until FCC decision on filings related to case

The FCC judge caught in a turf war with the commission's Media Bureau over adjudication of a handful of high-profile program access complaints has apparently blinked.

Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel has told the parties to the complaints that he is putting a March 16 formal hearing on hold pending an FCC decision on various filings related to the Media Bureau's decision to try the complaints itself.

"In order to maintain respect for and confidence in the FCC's ALJ hearing procedures that have been utilized since 1934, and for administrative efficiencies, this proceeding will be stayed by the presiding judge while the commission considers petitions for emergency stay and appeal," the judge wrote.

Only last week, the judge appeared to be holding to his timetable, asking the parties to file status reports on the complaints by Jan. 6.

The complaints were filed by programmers Wealth TV, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and the NFL Network against cable operators Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, and Brighthouse, and alleged they had discriminated against their networks in favor of the operators own owned networks.

The Media Bureau had tentatively concluded back in October that the complaints were merited, but delegated them to an ALJ for more fact-finding after FCC Chairman Kevin Martin could not muster three votes for a bureau-level sanction, but with the stipulation that the decision be rendered by early December.

But the judge--actually two since it first went to Sippel's predecessor, who has since retired--concluded that the 60-day deadline was not enough time to render a fair judgment, and set the first formal hearing for March 16. He also said the bureau's tentative conclusion that the operators had discriminated would not be factored into his decision. The December deadline came and went. The judge’s decision was a victory for operators.

But in a Christmas Even present to the programmers, the Media Bureau said that the judge's decision not to rule by the deadline meant the decision was not the Media Bureau's to make. It reclaimed the complaints by Wealth TV and MASN, and a week later did the same for the complaint by the NFL.

The networks were happy but the operators were not, filing motions to stay the Media Bureau move and calling for a decision on that move by the full commission. No decision has been made, and an FCC spokeswoman said she had no new information.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told a reporter last week that he did not think there would be any decision until after the new administration and a new chairman arrives Jan. 20.

The commission was recently instructed by top Democratic legislators to confine itself in the near term to DTV-related issues and ones with statutory deadlines.