In December, a Federal Communications Commission administrative judge issued a tentative ruling that Comcast had discriminated against the Tennis Channel by putting it at a competitive disadvantage.
After winning that ruling, the Santa Monica network demanded that Comcast immediately add the channel to Comcast's most widely distributed programming package. The move, which Comcast has been resisting, would make Tennis Channel available to nearly all of Comcast's 22 million cable subscribers.
But on Wednesday the FCC general counsel said that the full FCC would decide the matter and that Comcast was not required to move Tennis Channel at this time.
The dispute, which began nearly three years ago, centers on Comcast's refusal to move the Tennis Channel to a less exclusive environment.
The Philadelphia company has said it placed the Tennis Channel in the sports tier as part of an agreement between the two companies when Comcast agreed to provide carriage. However, Comcast appeared to run afoul of the rules because it offers the sports channels that it owns, the Golf Channel and NBC Sports (formerly known as Versus), in the basic programming package.
The Tennis Channel has argued that its location unfairly limits its revenue potential because channels receive fees from cable operators based on number of subscribers.
If Comcast loses the case, it would be the first time that a cable operator was found in violation of federal anti-discrimination program carriage rules, which were established by the agency in 1993. Comcast lost a similar dispute Wednesday, this one with Bloomberg.
On Wednesday, the FCC General Counsel Austin C. Schlick said the full commission should settle the Tennis Channel score. It was not clear when the commission would make the final call.
"The interim stay granted by the Office of General Counsel regarding the Tennis Channel is a welcome development, and we hope the full commission will follow suit," Comcast said in a statement. "There were procedural and substantive flaws in the [administrative judge's] decision, and we continue to believe it should not be upheld."
For its part, the Tennis Channel said the interim stay didn't change the administrative judge's findings. Instead, it was "simply a continuation of the status quo while the commission decides the procedural question.... We are pleased that the commission continues to move forward in resolving this dispute."
-- Meg James
Photo: Tennis Channel's Bill Macatee and Martina Navratilova, center, interview Ana Ivanovic. Credit: Fred Mullane