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Comcast, NFL to Seek Mediation

Comcast and the National Football League have agreed to try to settle their legal dispute over carriage terms of NFL Network out of court by turning to a mediator, both sides confirmed last week.

The agreement to rely on mediation came at the request of New York State Judge Bernard Fried in April. Fried, who ruled in favor of Comcast in May 2007 in a suit field by the NFL, was reversed by a higher state court in February. The case was returned to Fried’s court.

“We’re still in the process of arranging mediation,” Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said last Thursday.

The NFL sued Comcast in October 2006 for placing the NFL Network on a lightly viewed sports tier on systems it recently acquired from Adelphia Communications.

After Fried’s ruling seven months later, Comcast put the NFL Network on a sports tier on nearly all 600 of its systems. Comcast claimed it could do that under an August 2004 contract related to the cable operator’s options when it did not obtain the rights to distribute a package of out-of-market NFL games or a number of nationally televised NFL games by July 31, 2006.

The mediation will focus on whether Comcast had a contractual right to place the NFL Network on a sports tier that around 2 million of Comcast’s 24.7 million subscribers buy for about $5 to $7 per month.

The NFL has refused to suspend its carriage discrimination complaint against Comcast at the FCC for the duration of the mediation. The complaint accused Comcast of favoring company-owned sports networks Golf Channel and Versus over independent channels like NFL Network. Comcast denied the charges in a June 20 filing at the FCC.

“While we are prepared to agree to mediation of the contract language dispute between us and Comcast, we expressly told the court in New York that we would not stay the FCC proceeding — which raises major issues of federal communications policy — during the mediation. Comcast is trying to persuade the FCC to stay it, but we see no good reason to do so — especially because Comcast doesn’t deny that it treats NFLN differently than sports channels that it owns,” NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said last Thursday.