'America' Uncovered

Comcast has asked the Federal Communications Commission to rule that The America Channel is not a regional sports network entitled to obtain carriage via commercial arbitration under the agency's Adelphia Communications merger conditions.

In a filing last Wednesday, Comcast said it sought the ruling after being notified on Jan. 17 of the network's intent to go to arbitration in order to obtain carriage from the country's largest pay TV provider.

TAC has been rebuffed by Comcast, as well as other pay TV distributors, for many years. In 2005, it urged the FCC to reject the purchase of Adelphia by Comcast and Time Warner Cable because, with greater size, both acquirers would have more power to “abuse the unreasonable gate-keeping authority they already wield.”

Last July, the FCC approved the $16.9 billion breakup of Adelphia but attached several conditions, each with a duration of six years.

In one condition, the agency ruled that unaffiliated RSNs unable to obtain carriage from Comcast or Time Warner Cable could seek arbitration in order for subscribers to obtain access to programming otherwise not available. The intent was to break the stalemate between Comcast and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the pay TV home of the Washington Nationals baseball team.

Last month, TAC issued a release that it had reached a multiyear agreement with a number of National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I conferences to televise 200 hours per year of collegiate athletic events, including basketball, football, volleyball, track and field, lacrosse and field hockey.

TAC announced its “Sports­Life” slate after routinely billing itself as a channel largely about “communities, campuses, real heroes and ordinary people who accomplish the extraordinary.”

In a 72-page filing, Comcast said TAC shouldn't be treated as an RSN under the Adelphia provisions because “TAC has never launched its network, has never produced any quantity of programming” and has failed to show that it has “sufficient funding to actually launch and sustain a viable network.”

Comcast added that TAC has always had national, not regional, ambitions.

“We don't believe Comcast's claim has any merit, procedurally or substantively,” TAC CEO Doron Gorshein said in a statement. “Comcast is trying to circumvent the commission's arbitration rules and relitigate the Adelphia order.”

He continued, “Further, Comcast's claim that TAC is not an RSN cannot be squared with the plain language of the commission's rules or the facts about TAC's extensive regional sports rights. Comcast filed at the FCC without even asking us about our holdings, which is indicative of their anti-competitive motive.”

The FCC established the arbitration process in lieu of program carriage complaints filed with the agency. The arbitrator would have 45 days to determine whether carriage of the regional network should be required. The FCC imposed on itself a 120-day deadline to respond to an appeal of the arbitrator's award.