Washington—The NFL Network on Tuesday filed a complaint at the Federal Communications Commission that accused Comcast Corp. of discriminating against the league-owned sports channel in violation of equal treatment requirements in federal law.
The NFL Network's complaint states that Comcast is violating the law because Comcast-owned sports networks receive wider distribution on Comcast cable systems than Comcast is willing to extend to the NFL Network.
“NFL Network is asking the FCC to order Comcast to stop discriminating and to carry NFL Network on a basis that does not impair its ability to compete fairly,” the NFL Network said a statement.
Pursuant to an agreement that is the subject of ongoing litigation, Comcast carries the NFL Network on a sports programming tier that all customers may purchase but only about 1 million Comcast subscribers have done so. The NFL Network, by contrast, is demanding to be carried on Comcast's most widely purchased cable programming tier, seen in nearly all 24 million Comcast households.
“Comcast makes the NFL Network available to all of our customers on a tier of service that the NFL agreed to by contract,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's senior director of corporate communications and government affairs, in a statement.
Comcast, the NFL Network said, was additionally discriminating against the channel because the league didn't agree to let Comcast carry NFL games on a Comcast-owned sports channel.
“This retaliatory behavior is a separate violation of the 1992 Cable Act,” the NFL Network said.
The NFL Network said a potential deal to sell games to Comcast collapsed after Comcast insisted on a broadcast TV blackout in the home markets of the teams on the field.
“Comcast also is retaliating against NFL Network because the NFL decided not to sell an annual package of eight regular-season games to a Comcast-owned sports network, in part because Comcast insisted on an unacceptable condition in the deal that would have violated the NFL’s longstanding policy of free over-the-air television coverage of games in the cities of the two competing teams,” the NFL Network said.
In a declaration attached to the complaint, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the NFL refused to license the eight-game package to Comcast several months before he resigned and turned the reins over to current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Tagliabue said that after Comcast got the news, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said, “Your relationships with the cable industry are going to get very interesting.”
Tagliabue added, “In retrospect, I believe that Mr. Roberts' statement foreshadowed Comcast's retaliation against the [NFL] for the league's refusal to license the eight-game package to Comcast.”
The NFL Network claims the popularity of its sport justifies the widest distribution by the largest U.S. cable operator. But Comcast and other cable operators have resisted, claiming that the NFL Network was demanding too much money for a channel that would air just eight NFL regular season games. Time Warner Cable does not carry the NFL Network.
“The NFL has immense power in the marketplace, yet it keeps running to the federal and state governments to try to force changes in the deal it freely accepted in negotiations with Comcast,” Fitzmaurice said. “The agreement we have to carry the NFL Network is pro-consumer. It allows us 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.”
Last year, FCC chairman Kevin Martin attempted to pass rules designed to send Comcast and the NFL Network into compulsory arbitration. Lacking support, Martin sidelined that effort.
Since passage of the 1992 Cable Act, the FCC has dealt with just a few program carriage complaints. Generally, the agency has focused on rules designed to ensure that competing pay-TV providers can get access to satellite-delivered cable channels owned by cable operators.
Cable operators have complained not just about the price of the NFL Network but also about the NFL's refusal to allow cable operators to distribute NFL Sunday Ticket, which provides access to all out of market games. DirecTV has exclusive rights to NFL Sunday Ticket.