NFL Network files FCC complaint against Comcast

NFL Network today filed a carriage complaint at the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) against Comcast’s anti-consumer and anti-competitive treatment of NFL Network. The complaint focuses on Comcast’s discriminatory treatment of NFL Network compared to national sports networks that Comcast owns.

The complaint demonstrates that Comcast systems uniformly carry Comcast-owned sports networks on a widely-distributed basic tier, while relegating NFL Network to a sports tier for which subscribers must pay substantial additional fees. NFL Network’s television ratings and average viewership exceed those of more widely distributed Comcast-owned national sports networks. This discriminatory treatment of NFL Network is a violation of the 1992 Cable Act.

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. This retaliatory behavior is a separate violation of the 1992 Cable Act.

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.

Following are excerpts from the complaint:

Complaint

Comcast’s discrimination has taken two related forms:

1. "Comcast carries the NFL Network on a premium digital sports tier for which subscribers must pay substantial extra fees while uniformly carrying sports channels that it owns on an analog basic tier that entails no extra cost for subscribers.

2. "Comcast exploited its bottleneck power by dropping the NFL Network from its highly-penetrated digital basic tier in the wake of a decision by the National Football League not to grant Comcast telecast rights [for] a valuable program package of eight, live football games for Versus, a competing Comcast-owned sports channel.”

Comcast uses "bottleneck power" to favor its channels

"Comcast has misused its bottleneck power…to discriminate impermissibly against the NFL Network in favor of Comcast-owned sports channels…Congress outlawed precisely this type of cable operator abuse of bottleneck power in the Cable Television Consumer Protection Act of 1992.

"The NFL Network’s relocation to Comcast’s expensive premium tier, and its resulting loss in subscribers, has also harmed its ability to compete with other sports channels to acquire desirable programming to present on the NFL Network. In 2007, the NFL Network was unable effectively to compete to acquire carriage rights for a Pac-10 Conference/Big 12 Conference game package as a result of its artificially-constrained level of distribution. Instead, this package was sublicensed by Fox Sports Network to the Comcast-owned Versus channel, which had 74 million subscribers at the time of the bidding on this package.

"Comcast owns two national sports programming channels in direct competition with the NFL Network: Versus (previously the "Outdoor Life Network”) and the Golf Channel…When Comcast shifted the NFL Network to the premium tier, it gave Versus and the Golf Channel a 15-to-1 household penetration advantage over the NFL Network on Comcast systems.

"Subscribership to Comcast’s premium sports tier has increased by approximately 50%, to approximately 2.1 million households, since Comcast shifted the NFL Network to the sports tier…[generating] about $5 million in new [Comcast] revenue each month.”

Fans "paying more for less"

"[The] effect on consumers is indisputable: they are paying more for less…Subscribers who previously received the NFL Network’s popular football programming on a digital basic tier must now pay premium rates for identical programming…The premium fee is approximately $7 per month over and above the fee that subscribers must pay for digital basic service.”

Despite fewer homes, NFL Network more viewed than Comcast-owned national sports channels

"[Although NFL Network is available in 43% fewer homes than Versus], NFL Network’s non-live game programming is more popular than the highest-rated programming on Versus and the Golf Channel. This year the NFL Network’s coverage of the first round of the NFL Draft (3:00-6:30 PM ET on Saturday, April 26, 2008) drew 57% more viewers than the average viewership of Versus’ exclusive coverage of the National Hockey League’s first-round playoff games -- even though the NFL Draft was also simulcast on ESPN. Viewership of the first round of the NFL Network’s NFL Draft coverage exceeded viewership for 25 of the 26 first-round [NHL] playoff games [on Versus].”

Comcast demanded removal of eight-game package from local TV

"As a further condition of its offer [for the eight-game cable package], Comcast demanded that the league prohibit all broadcasters, including local broadcasters in the competing teams’ home markets, from carrying the eight games over the air. The league refused to acquiesce in Comcast’s demand, which was inconsistent with the league’s long-standing policy of providing fans with access to their local games through free over-the-air broadcasters.”