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Comcast and Tennis Channel call in the referee

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Bring in the chair umpire.

Cable giant Comcast Corp. and the independent Tennis Channel said Tuesday that they were unable to resolve through mediation their dispute over channel position and would begin preparing for an administrative trial.

The privately held Santa Monica-based Tennis Channel has been angling for a berth that would reach a greater number of Comcast subscribers. Comcast currently offers the Tennis Channel as part of a package of sports networks for which it charges customers more. As a result, the Tennis Channel is not as widely distributed as a channel in a basic service package. Because a cable network receives payment based on the number of homes that receive it, shifting out of the higher-priced sports tier would mean more revenue.

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The Tennis Channel has asked the Federal Communications Commission to intervene, arguing that Comcast has put it at an unfair disadvantage because its own sports networks, including the Golf Channel and Versus, are on the basic tier and available to all of its customers.

The review comes at a sensitive time for Comcast, which is depending upon the FCC to approve its proposed merger with NBC Universal. Critics contend that a Comcast-controlled NBC Universal would give too much leverage to the Philadelphia-based company, which it could use to favor its own cable networks at the expense of competitors, particularly small independent channels.

For its part, Comcast said Tennis Channel agreed to be placed on the sports tier when Comcast helped launch the start-up five years ago. Comcast also noted that many large cable operators offer the Tennis Channel in a more-exclusive tier.

“Although it is disappointing that a resolution could not be reached, we now look forward to refuting Tennis Channel’s flawed complaint in a full evidentiary hearing before an administrative law judge at the FCC,’ Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast vice president for government communications, said in a statement. ‘Far from discriminating against Tennis Channel, we are carrying it in a manner similar to many other distributors and fully honoring the terms of the parties’ agreement.’

Tennis Channel Chief Executive Ken Solomon was unavailable for comment.

-- Meg James


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