Court Reverses Field On Comcast’s NFL Network Tier Play

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NFL Network could wind its way back in front of more subscribers on Comcast systems.

An appellate court in New York has reversed field on a judgment made in May 2007 that enabled Comcast to position the NFL Network on a sports tier, ruling that the matter should be “remanded for further proceedings.” No trial date had been set at press time.

A panel of four judges at New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, ruled today that language concerning “additional programming package” was ambiguous and that “neither party has established that its interpretation of the relevant contracts is a matter of law.”

Further, the appellate court wrote: “Contrary to the motion court’s finding, we conclude that the agreements are ambiguous with respect to the scope of the tiering provision and that neither party has established a definitive interpretation as a matter of law.”

The court’s call overturns the decision reached by Judge Bernard Fried last May in which he found in Comcast's favor that an agreement it made with the pro football league in 2004 would allow it to move the NFL Network to a sports tier if the nation's largest cable operator didn't succeed in its quest to acquire rights to the out-of-market “NFL Sunday Ticket” pay-per-view package, or an eight-game primetime package for Versus, then called OLN. Those primetime contests were awarded by the pro football league to its in-house network in January 2006 and began airing on the channel that season.

After Fried’s finding, Comcast last year migrated the NFL Network from its “D2” offering, its second most widely distributed digital package, to a sports tier, a move that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said cost the service 8 million of the 9 million subscribers it once had with Comcast.

The parties claimed the appellate ruling was in their court.

“We are pleased that the appellate court agreed that Comcast's main argument is a strong one and denied the NFL's request to enter judgment in their favor,” said Comcast senior vice president of corporate communications D’Arcy Rudnay in a statement. “We look forward to pressing ahead with discovery and trial in this case to vindicate our right to carry the NFL Network on a sports tier, which is the fairest and best result for our customers.”

A spokesman for the NFL said the court’s decision could help its distribution cause: “We are pleased that the lower court decision was reversed. We believe that today’s decision ultimately will lead to the restoration of NFL Network service to the millions of fans who received it before the network was moved to an expensive sports tier.”

Comcast’s current contract with the NFL Network expires in April 2009.

At press time, officials for both parties said they were unaware when the next court processes would occur before Judge Fried.

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