Court Date Set For A La Carte Case

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Washington – Major cable operators and programmers on March 10 plan to ask a federal judge in Los Angeles to toss out an antitrust suit designed to force pay-TV distributors to allow consumers to buy channels on an individual or a la carte basis.

The suit, filed in September, alleged that the industry practice of offering consumers dozens of channels in a package on a take-it-or-leave it basis runs counter to federal laws that outlaw the abuse of market power.

Comcast, in a Dec. 21 court filing on behalf of the cable and satellite TV distributors named as defendants, said the case filed by a few customers was nothing but an “attempt to distort the antitrust laws to assist their effort to radically reengineer the U.S. television industry.”

Cable operators and programmers have strongly resisted moving to an a la carte business modeling, saying it would devastate niche channels and drive up retail cable prices. FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who does not believe the industry’s objections are valid, has endorsed the antitrust suit filed by Los Angeles attorney Maxwell Blecher.

Cable programmers that were sued, including Viacom and Disney, joined Comcast and Time Warner Cable in arguing that the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue because they don’t participate in the wholesale cable programming market where they allege programmers force channel bundling on distributors in violation of antitrust law.

“The antitrust laws do not give consumers a right to buy television programming a la carte any more than they give consumers a right to buy the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, rather than the entire newspaper,” Viacom said in a Dec. 21 court filing on behalf of the programmers sued.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Christina Snyder, a 1997 appointee of President Clinton.