Comcast dispute with NFL sent back to trial court

NEW YORK Tue Feb 26, 2008 5:45pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state appeals court on Tuesday overturned a ruling that said Comcast Corp could distribute the National Football League's 24-hour football television network as part of a premium package of sports cable channels.

In its ruling, an appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed the lower court's summary judgment in favor of Comcast, but sent the case back for further proceedings.

At issue is whether two 2004 agreements allow Comcast to restrict distribution of the NFL Network to a sports tier, a separate bundle of sports-related channels for which it charges an extra fee, or require it to distribute the channels more broadly.

"Contrary to the motion court's finding, we conclude that the agreements are ambiguous with respect to the scope of the tiering provision and that neither party has established a definitive interpretation as a matter of law," Associate Justice Luis Gonzalez wrote for the court.

The ruling is a boost to the football league's efforts to get more people to watch its NFL Network. Some analysts have said the 4-year-old network could eventually, with broad enough distribution, challenge Walt Disney Co's ESPN sports channel.

NFL Enterprises LLC sued Comcast Cable Communications LLC in October 2006 after the cable operator told the sports league it would launch the NFL Network on a separate sports tier. The trial court ruled for Comcast in May last year.

Comcast said it was pleased the appeals court had "agreed that Comcast's main argument is a strong one and denied the NFL's request to enter judgment in their favor."

"We look forward to pressing ahead with discovery and trial in this case to vindicate our right to carry the NFL Network on a sports tier, which is the fairest and best result for our customers," it said in an e-mailed statement.

The NFL said it was pleased the lower court decision had been reversed.

"We believe that today's decision ultimately will lead to the restoration of NFL Network service to the millions of fans who received it before the Network was moved to an expensive sports tier," the NFL said in an e-mailed statement.

The dispute with Comcast and two other large cable providers was one of the reasons why the sports league allowed broadcast networks CBS and NBC in December to air a key game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants instead of airing it only on the NFL Network.

The CBS network is part of CBS Corp, while NBC is part of NBC Universal, the media conglomerate controlled by General Electric Co.

(Editing by Braden Reddall)

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