FCC backs NFL in cable dispute

Feds call Comcast's placement tactics 'unfair'

The Federal Communications Commission has sided with the National Football League in its discrimination complaint against Comcast but has asked a judge to resolve some legal issues.

Issuing its decision late Friday, the agency said the NFL’s complaint that Comcast’s placement of the NFL Network on a premium tier — instead of adding it to the cabler’s basic service — was unfair. The decision included similar carriage complaints from other programmers against Comcast as well as Cox and Time Warner Cable.

While the FCC said all complaints had established a sufficient case for discrimination, legal matters beyond the commission’s scope require a hearing by an administrative law judge, whose ruling is to include a remedy. Under the law, a ruling must be issued within 60 days.

In 2006, the NFL claimed Comcast put the NFL Network on a digital pay tier in order to favor its own sports programming, which the cabler offers on its basic service. Mid Atlantic Sports Network claimed Comcast was unfairly withholding its baseball programming in two markets — Roanoke, Va., and Harrisburg, Pa.

Wealth TV complained that it was being unfairly excluded from carriage on four cable systems, including Comcast.

“The commission found that in all of these cases the complainants did prove (the initial burden) that they were discriminated against by cable operators who refused to carry their programming,” an FCC spokesman said in a statement late Friday.

“We are pleased with today’s FCC ruling and appreciate the commissioners’ attention to our complaint,” the NFL Network said in a statement. “NFL cable viewers could soon be the real winners,” the net added.

“The FCC is protecting consumers and competition by enforcing the program carriage rules that provide an essential check against the monopolistic incentives of vertically integrated cable distributors,” MASN spokesman Todd Webster said in a statement. “We applaud this decision and look forward to a swift resolution that will return Major League Baseball and local sports programming to the airwaves throughout MASN’s television territory.”

Comcast has argued that consumers will have to pay more for programming many may not want if the company is forced to include the NFL Network in its regular digital cable package. In a statement, the company said its “programming decisions are in the best interest of our consumers and consistent with the law,” adding that “forcing these networks onto our cable systems will cost consumers millions of dollars and cause cable prices to rise.”

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)