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MASN Whiffs Against Comcast

Comcast may have received a big boost in its carriage fight with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network last week.

According to industry sources, the Federal Communications Commission’s Enforcement Bureau has told an agency administrative law judge that the cable operators should not be forced to carry MASN’s regional sports net on the systems at issue.

MASN had accused Comcast of discriminating against it by refusing to carry the regional sports network in Harrisburg, Pa.; the Tri-Cities region of southwestern Virginia; and Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., as well as “in various cable systems in smaller communities where Comcast has cable systems within MASN’s territory.”

A source said that the bureau’s recommendation was not as direct a rebuke to MASN’s arguments as was the Enforcement Bureau’s smackdown of WealthTV’s program-access complaint. In that case, the bureau said WealthTV had failed to show any direct evidence that a quartet of top cable operators had discriminated against its network in favor of their own, allegedly similar network, and that even if they had shown discrimination, they could now demonstrate that it put them at a competitive disadvantage.

The Enforcement Bureau’s decision on MASN won’t be made public until next week and is simply a recommendation. But it appears that in two out of the three high-profile program-carriage hearings involving Comcast and other major cable operators last spring, the FCC has recommended against mandatory carriage. The third complaint was dropped after Comcast and NFL Network came to terms on a settlement.

Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel, who tried all three complaints, recommended that Comcast and MASN go and do likewise, and the two were in talks last week, though at press time there was no word on the outcome.

The Enforcement Bureau’s recommendations against the complaint represent a big turnaround from last fall, when the FCC’s Media Bureau, under then-chairman Kevin Martin, recommended in favor of the complainants and against Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Bright House Networks.

Once Sippel renders his verdict in the two remaining complaints — unless they are settled beforehand — that becomes a recommendation to the full FCC, which must still vote on the complaints.