Unless a settlement is made or the court ends up tossing the case into the bin, the antitrust case lodged by regional sports network (RSN) Altitude TV against Comcast could drag deep into 2021 and possibly threaten local televised coverage of the next season of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.
That's a possibility, according to a scheduling order released by the Colorado district court on January 23.
The scheduling order arrives more than two months after Altitude filed a lawsuit claiming Comcast is violating antitrust laws by trying to drive it out of business and possibly attempt to seize control of the local sports TV market with its own regional sports network.
Comcast has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, shooting down claims that the cable operator has refused to deal with the Denver-based regional sports network and claims that Comcast has a monopolistic pay-TV position in the market. Comcast said Altitude's allegation that the cable op would seek to acquire Altitude or displace it with a Comcast-owned RSN "is baseless speculation."
Altitude's carriage agreement with Comcast ended on August 31, 2019.
Per the current scheduling order, the fact discovery cut-off will be Oct. 21, 2020, with expert discovery cut-off set for Jan. 19, 2021. If it goes so far, a pretrial conference in this case would be held the morning of May 3, 2021. Altitude told the court that it expects a jury trial to require 12 trial days, plus more days for jury selection, while Comcast sees it requiring no more than five trial days.
Altitude TV likewise told the court it intended to depose more than a dozen people, including Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable; Greg Rigdon, president of content acquisition at Comcast; David Preschlack, president of NBC Sports Regional Networks; and yet-to-be identified people from regional sports networks in which Comcast has an interest as well as people with AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain who have knowledge of carriage terms and fees with Comcast.
Comcast's shorter preliminary list of people it intends to depose includes Stanley Kroenke, owner of Altitude Sports & Entertainment; Timothy Boell, VP of distribution and affiliate marketing, Outdoor Channel, which has ties to Altitude's parent company; and Jim Martin, former president and CEO of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.
A case under the pay-TV microscope
The case is being watched closely because it highlights a significant rift between a regional sports network and the nation's largest pay-TV distributor at a time in which video service service providers are facing a growing cord-cutting trend and looking to move higher-priced sports channels from their primary bundles to separate tiers tailored for sports fans. But putting Altitude on a less popular sports tier would reduce the RSN's wide market distribution and jeopardize its historic business model.
Altitude TV has already argued that an OTT-delivered, direct-to-consumer model is not financially viable and that it has been unable so far to negotiate carriage deals with various streaming services, including Hulu, Amazon and YouTube TV.
The current scheduling order filed by the court is not necessarily set in stone. Comcast's motion to stay discovery pending the court decision on the operator's motion to dismiss the Altitude suit could stretch it out even further.
Altitude TV filed an opposition to Comcast's motion on January 23, arguing that Comcast has failed to demonstrate good cause for a discovery stay that would likely delay the proceedings.
"And as long as Altitude remains unavailable to Comcast’s subscribers in the Denver DMA, Altitude and consumers are being harmed, and both would be prejudiced by a delay associated with a stay of discovery," Altitude TV told the court.
Altitude TV's carriage deal with Dish Network also has lapsed and remains blacked out on Dish's satellite TV service. Altitude recently struck a new deal with AT&T/DirecTV and is carried in the region by CenturyLink (Prism TV) and in some areas served by Charter Communications.
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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading