Comcast Corp. scored a major victory in its long-running legal dispute with the 24-hour Tennis Channel when a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the cable giant is not required to distribute the independent niche sports channel to all of its 22 million subscribers.

The three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously overturned a decision by the Federal Communications Commission that would have forced Comcast to broadly distribute the Tennis Channel.

Comcast had said the FCC's action would be expensive and violate its First Amendment right to package news and entertainment without government interference - arguments that the appeals court judges agreed with.

Comcast was pleased with the court's action, spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said.

The facts, Fitzmaurice said, did not support a finding that Comcast had discriminated against the Tennis Channel and that Comcast violated the law.

Comcast distributes the Tennis Channel on an extra-charge sports tier.

The Tennis Channel said Tuesday that it was disappointed, and it promised to continue the legal fight.

"As a small, independent company defending ourselves against one of the world's largest media conglomerates, we would love for this long process to be justly resolved and behind us," channel spokesman Eric Abner said in a statement.

"Comcast's pattern of discrimination against Tennis Channel" needs further review, Abner said, and "we intend to seek that review."

The Tennis Channel contended at the FCC that Comcast was deliberately limiting the number of homes that could watch by consigning it to a sports package, while Comcast made the Comcast-owned Golf Channel and Versus, now called the NBC Sports Network channel, available to millions of homes on general-entertainment packages.

By doing so, the Tennis Channel said that Comcast was unfairly using its cable-TV distribution system to benefit Golf and Versus and damage Tennis and that this violated federal cable laws. The harm was done through lower subscriber fees paid to the Tennis Channel and a smaller audience to sell to advertisers, Tennis said.

Comcast countered that the Tennis Channel initially agreed to be carried on a sports package and then later sought the broader distribution for its economic benefit.

After the FCC agreed with the Tennis Channel and determined that it had been discriminated against, Comcast appealed the regulatory agency's decision to the courts. Oral arguments were heard in February, and the decision was released Tuesday. The three judges were Brett M. Kavanaugh, Stephen F. Williams, and Harry T. Edwards.

Contact Bob Fernandez

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