Tennis Channel's upgrade on Comcast stalled pending appeal
* U.S. appeals court grants Comcast stay request
* Comcast says court action will avert "irreversible harms"
* Tennis Channel contends court will uphold FCC's decision
By Jasmin Melvin
WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Comcast Corp will not have to move the independent Tennis Channel to a tier in line with competing sports networks until a pending court challenge is concluded, a U.S. appeals court said on Friday.
The Federal Communications Commission in July upheld an administrative law judge's ruling that Comcast discriminated against the Tennis Channel when it placed the network in a more expensive viewing tier than Comcast's affiliated sports networks.
Under the FCC order, Comcast would have had to move the Tennis Channel within 45 days to a tier reaching the same number of subscribers as the tier carrying Comcast's Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network.
The Tennis Channel is owned by a group of private-equity firms and former tennis stars.
Comcast asked a federal appeals court to reverse the FCC's ruling, arguing the move violated the company's constitutional rights and would result in millions of dollars in costs.
The top U.S. cable operator also filed an emergency motion earlier in the month to stay the FCC's decision pending the court's review, arguing that it would likely succeed on the merits, and a stay would prevent "irreversible harms to Comcast" while not injuring the Tennis Channel.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted the motion on Friday.
Comcast could have had to add the network to an additional 18 million households, incurring millions of dollars more in programming costs that it will owe the Tennis Channel - an expense likely to trickle down to Comcast subscribers.
Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast's vice president of government communications, said the stay will spare its customers needless disruption.
The Tennis Channel said it was disappointed by the court's action. "We believe that the FCC's decision was correct and that the court will agree with the FCC when it considers the full case," Tennis Channel spokesman Eric Abner said.
The FCC's ruling, decided in a 3-2 vote along party lines, is the first time a cable network has prevailed over a cable operator under the FCC's 1993 federal anti-discrimination program carriage rules.
Republican Commissioners Robert McDowell and Ajit Pai, who cited First Amendment concerns in their dissent from the FCC ruling, said on Friday that they were pleased with the court's decision.
A representative from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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