The first of a half dozen program access complaints against major cable operators is scheduled to go before an FCC administrative law judge (ALJ) in Washington Tuesday (April 14).
At issue is whether Comcast's placement of the NFL Network on a digital sports tier represents discrimination prevented by the 1992 Cable Act.
Under former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin the access complaints were going to be handled by the Media Bureau, which reclaimed jurisdication from the ALJ. But one of acting Chairman Michael Copps' first major actions was to return them to the ALJ for adjudication, concluding they were "best resolved" through hearings before a judge, and as expeditiously as possible.
The complaint being tried Tuesday was filed by the NFL Network against Comcast last May.
NFL Network, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and Wealth TV all filed complaints against Comcast, and Wealth TV also filed them against Cox, Time Warner, and Bright House, arguing they had discriminated against the programmers in favor of the cable operators own, owned networks.
Specifically, the NFL Network alleges that Comcast is discriminating by:
1. "[carrying] the NFL Network on a premium digital sports tier for which subscribers must pay substantial extra fees while uniformly carrying sports channels that it owns on an analog basic tier that entails no extra cost for subscribers," and 2) "[B]y dropping the NFL Network from its highly-penetrated digital basic tier in the wake of a decision by the National Football League not to grant Comcast telecast rights [for] a valuable program package of eight, live football games for Versus, a competing Comcast-owned sports channel.”
Comcast has countered that its carriage of the channel on a sports tier available to all customers is pro-consumer, was agreed-to by the NFL Network, and allows Comcast "to place this expensive channel on a tier of service for those who wish to pay for it, not on a tier where everyone must pay for it."
Cable operators have frequently been hammered in Washington over rising cable bills. While operators point to the proliferation of channels to go along with that price increase, they also point out that the more channels they are forced to carry in basic, the more consumers will have to pay for that service.