FCC Takes Eye Off Ball, Leaves Court in Defeat

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit served the Tennis Channel a crushing blow, essentially holding that government agencies cannot tell cable operators what networks should be disseminated to consumers.  

The court found that the FCC had made an unforced error in ruling that Comcast had acted illegally against the Tennis Channel by refusing to distribute it as widely as Comcast’s own sports networks, Golf Channel and Versus.  This was a challenge based on Section 616 of the Communications Act, which gives the FCC authority to prevent “multichannel video programming distributors” from restraining the ability of unaffiliated “video program vendors” from competing “fairly by discriminating” – a broad power that the FCC still managed to abuse here.

Initially, the Tennis Channel contracted with Comcast to distribute its content on Comcast’s less broadly distributed sports tier.  It later approached Comcast with a proposal to reposition the channel onto a tier with broader distribution.  Comcast backhanded this proposal, citing financial impracticability – a basic analysis of whether such a move would make sense given ratings, market demand, etc.  An FCC administrative law judge, without citing contrary financial studies (or even a video replay) then corrected what he deemed to be marketplace “discrimination” and ordered Comcast to pay $375,000 to the government and make the Tennis Channel more widely available to consumers.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit smashed that finding of unlawful discrimination. Indeed, substituting the judgment of an administrative agency for a freely agreed distribution deal for no good reason flouts basic principles of administrative and contract law.  Even in this day of government overreach, it’s just not cricket!

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s concurring opinion warrants special attention – and applause.  He concluded that Section 616’s prohibition on discrimination only applies when a distributor possesses market power and that Comcast has no such advantage in the national video programming distribution market. According to Kavanaugh, applying Section 616 to a video programming distributor that lacks market power is not only outside the lines of the Communications Act, but the First Amendment as well.

That is, when Comcast distributes specific channels, it’s transmitting speech.  Overruling a cable operator’s programming choices thus interferes with editorial discretion to select and transmit a protected form of speech.  Courts should continue to umpire federal agencies that grant themselves the power to distort the marketplace of ideas.

For more on this case and the important First Amendment and rule of law issues it raises, see Randolph May of the Free State Foundation.