Policy

More Tennis Channel, Anyone?

8/27/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

At press time, Comcast was preparing its customers for
the move of Tennis Channel to its Digital Starter and Digital
Preferred tiers, where its co-owned NBC Sports Network
and Golf Channel reside.

That was in response to the Federal Communications
Commission’s Sept. 7 deadline for complying with its
order in the Tennis Channel program-carriage complaint.
Comcast must either move Tennis or put its
own networks on its sports tier — and that isn’t going
to happen.

Comcast also took its last shot at convincing a federal
court to delay that deadline while the court considers its
legal challenge to an FCC ruling that it had discriminated
against the independent Tennis and in favor of Golf
and NBCSN, both of which are owned by Comcast-controlled
NBCUniversal.

TWO YEARS OF WRANGLING

Tennis had filed its initial complaint against Comcast
on July 5, 2010, alleging that Comcast had flouted agency
rules by discriminating against it on the basis of affiliation. An administrative law judge, an FCC bureau
decision and a full commission vote all concurred with
Tennis’ take.

In a filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C.
Circuit, Comcast reiterated that the
FCC decision was unprecedented and
distorted, and said the court should
stay enforcement.

While the FCC’s general counsel
issued a partial stay of the decision
for Comcast systems that had
not been carrying Tennis at all and
had limited capacity to do so, Comcast
said that move hardly constituted
relief.

The court will need to weigh in by
Sept. 7, particularly if it grants the
stay.

“Once they move Tennis Channel
into expanded basic, then you have
essentially changed what Comcast
wants to sell as part of the basic package,”
said a cable attorney speaking on
background. That is a First Amendment
question the court may want to
consider, the attorney said.

For its part, Tennis suggested the
license fee Comcast must pony up
for the 20 million or so subscribers
it will gain — about 15 cents per subscriber,
according to SNL Kagan estimates
— is hardly irreparable harm
to a $50 billion-plus company.

Tennis did not ask for more money
as part of its complaint, and the FCC
did not require price parity, so there
is no new rate negotiation to possibly
delay the channel moves.

Whether or not Comcast wins the
stay, it had to proceed on the separate
track of informing customers
about the possible moves, which it
has begun to do via bill-stuffers that
include a link to more information
on its website, though with a caveat
to stay tuned, given its court challenge.

Tennis Channel CEO Ken Solomon
was confident last week that
there wouldn’t be any legal doublefaults
and that broader distribution
will soon ensue for the network
across Comcast systems.

“We’ve won this match in the
court five times, yet Comcast still
wants to check things on ‘Hawkeye’ (tennis’ visual challenge
system technology),” he said.

“It has taken 20 years, but this [case] speaks to what everyone
has known: There is affiliate-biased discrimination
when it comes to carriage,” Solomon added.

Failing another deuce game in the courts, Solomon
said Comcast should begin positioning Tennis on broader
distribution platforms during what would amount to
the second week of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships.

“We’d like to sit down at the table sooner. That’s what
we always intended,” he said, with the hope that the migration
would take place earlier during the Grand Slam
event from Flushing, N.Y.

NET GAINS

Either way, Tennis figures to boost its current base from
around 3 million to as many as 23 million Comcast video
customers, an increase that would push the independent’s
subscriber base past the 50 million mark from its current
total of 34 million. National Nielsen ratings would likely
follow next year.

Tennis’ present base includes additions from the
new contract it struck with the National Cable Television
Cooperative last September, which calls for a
minimum of digital-basic carriage versus its prior
sports-tier positioning.

“A number of NCTC members had already upgraded
us [before the new contract] and we continue to see additions,
including with Verizon,” Solomon said.

Post-Comcast rollouts, Tennis will be available on digital
basic or above on seven of the top 10 U.S. distributors
— save for Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications
and Cablevision Systems, which dropped the service following
the new NCTC pact.

Solomon noted with a larger subscription base and
higher affi liate fees, Tennis will look to expand its roster
of live and encore match hours from 4,300, under both
existing contracts and by securing additional rights:
“Singles and doubles are played from Monday through
Sunday. We’ll be able to televise more action from early
in the tournaments.”

Tennis is also eyeing a move toward TV Everywhere
applications next year, he added: “Whether it’s via mobile
devices or increased choice of matches, we’re keyed up to
providing tennis fans with content whenever and wherever
they want it.”

Just the FAQs

WASHINGTON — Comcast has started to tell customers that
Tennis Channel may be moving “on or around” Sept. 7.

It put the following message on its website, with language “nearly
identical” included as a bill stuffer: “On or about September 7,
2012, Tennis Channel, which is generally carried on the Sports
Entertainment Package, will be included in the Digital Starter and
Digital Preferred levels of service on most Comcast cable systems
by order of the Federal Communications Commission. This may
change since the order is being challenged. Please check back periodically
for updates and further information.”

It also provided some FAQs, including:

“Q. Why are you making this change?

A. The Federal Communications Commission, which acted on
Tennis Channel’s request, ordered us to move Tennis Channel from
the Sports Entertainment Package to our Digital Starter and Digital
Preferred levels of service.

Q. Will the price of Sports Entertainment Package be reduced
as a result of this change?

A. We are not making price adjustments at this time.

Q. Will the price of Digital Starter increase as a result of this change?

A. Not at this time.”

— John Eggerton

November

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