News

Judge Keeps NFL Case

1/09/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

An administrative law judge is apparently defying an order by a Federal Communications Commission official that terminated his control over NFL Network’s complaint to gain access to the vast majority of Comcast’s cable subscribers.

The ALJ’s move seemed to be aimed at disrupting any attempt by FCC chairman Kevin Martin to produce a ruling by the Media Bureau in favor of NFL Network before he is forced from office on Jan. 20 with the arrival of the Obama administration.

“I don’t think [the ALJ] has any authority to be doing anything else,” Martin said last Thursday.

Martin said he didn’t know whether he could order the ALJ, an FCC employee, to stop his proceedings.

“I think I would leave that up to the bureaus to end up interacting with him,” Martin said. Martin also denied he wanted a ruling before he left office.

“I do think the [Media] Bureau is going to try to act on this in a timely fashion, but I don’t think that this is something that the bureau is going to try to act on within the next 10 days, before there is any kind of a change,” Martin said.

FCC Media Bureau chief Monica Desai took back the NFL Network-Comcast case on Dec. 31, saying ALJ Richard Sippel failed to rule within 60 days as she required when she referred the matter to him in early October.

Comcast subsequently asked the full FCC to review Desai’s action and stay the effect of her ruling while the review is pending.

Last Tuesday, Sippel issued a two-page order requiring NFL Network and Comcast to keep the case going by filing a number of pleadings no later than 4 p.m. on Jan. 7. Both complied. Sippel gave the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which is representing the FCC in the case, an additional 24 hours to file.

Sippel’s order indicated that he wanted the case to go forward while Comcast’s stay was pending, saying “expedited discovery and procedural dates previously set require and deserve compliance by all parties,” especially the NFL Network since it wanted speedy action on its complaint in the first place.

Comcast declined to comment, a spokeswoman said. An NFL Network spokesman didn’t comment either, saying lawyers were reviewing Sippel’s action. Sippel didn’t return a reporter’s call.

Comcast distributes NFL Network on a sports tier purchased by about 2 million subscribers. NFL Network wants the FCC to force Comcast to deliver the channel to the 70% of subscribers who have a digital package. Comcast has 24.4 million subscribers nationally. NFL Network is alleging discrimination because Comcast-owned sports networks, Versus and Golf Channel, are distributed in more popular analog and digital programming packages.

September