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Comcast Sues DirecTV Over 'Deceptive' Claims of 'Free' Televised NFL Games

Comcast says its satellite rival exploited the end of the NFL Lockout to conduct a broad advertising campaign that was false, misleading, and deceptive, as well as disparaging to its competitors.

AFC on CBS
JOHN PAUL FILO/CBS

After ending an impasse over a new collective bargaining agreement, the National Football League is back. This is a relief to all the television networks that paid billions of dollars for television rights.

But one media giant isn't dancing in the end zone.

Comcast has taken the end of the labor dispute as an opportunity to settle a beef with one of its rivals, satellite TV company DirectTV, which it accuses in a new lawsuit filed on Wednesday in Illinois federal court of deceptive advertising. According to the complaint, DirectTV allegedly falsely advertises that its consumers are going to see football "free" this season.

Comcast's complaint is heavy on heated rhetoric and could easily come from a class action attorney.

It doesn't.

The lawsuit comes from the nation's largest cable operator against the nation's largest satellite operator, who objected strongly to Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal and pushed the FCC to impose conditions on how its rival would negotiate programming agreements.

Now comes a legal counterblow.

Here's the opening of this lawsuit, and the boldfacing and underlying is all Comcast:

"This is a false advertising case against a serial false advertiser. In the wake of the recent resolution of the NFL's labor dispute, defendant DIRECTV has launched a multi-million-dollar multimedia advertising campaign, baiting consumers with the claim that DIRECTV's popular NFL Sunday Ticket service -- which ordinarily costs hundreds of dollars per year -- is currently available for "free" or at "no extra charge." Unfortunately for consumers the claim of "free" is an outright lie. As none of the ads disclose, the offer is not for free NFL Sunday Ticket  service—the offer requires a two-year contract with hefty termination fees for early  cancellation, with the NFL Sunday Ticket service automatically renewing in the second year at  full price. DIRECTV has gone to great lengths to conceal this fact from consumers. Many of its ads, especially those aired on the radio, simply omit this critical fact altogether while DIRECTV's television and Internet ads employ a carefully crafted scheme of purported disclaimers that were intentionally designed to deceive as many consumers as possible."

To be sure, false advertising claims are certainly a weapon of choice among TV distributors.

Comcast itself has been sued by rivals multiple times for false advertising, including by AT&T over the suggestion of bulky cable boxes placed on consumer lawns, by Verizon over claims of better HD, and even by DirecTV over superior picture quality. Comcast has also gotten served with class action lawsuits claiming false advertising over things like the speed of its Internet service and BitTorrent blocking.

Running promotions that claim "free" with "automatic renewal" is certainly not a marketing invention of DirecTV, although it's a practice that certainly gets under the skin of many consumers.

Comcast's allegations against DirecTV go beyond the allegedly false impression that customers are getting "free" football.

DirecTV is also charged in the lawsuit with "falsely disparaging cable television service generally -- and, by clear implication, Comcast's cable services specifically."

In one example, Comcast points out that DirecTV is saying in its advertisments that cable subscribers can only see a single NFL game each Sunday during the NFL season. In another example, consumers in Philadelphia are said to be told that cable customers will be unable to watch Philadelphia Eagles games on Sunday.

"On information and belief, DIRECTV deliberately selected the Philadelphia Eagles as the target of this advertisement in order to disparage Comcast, its competitor, and undermine Comcast's sponsorship of the Eagles franchise," says Comcast, 

Finally, Comcast buttresses its arguments that DirecTV is a "serial offender in the false advertising realm" by asserting that its rival has entered into consent decrees with the Attorneys General of DC and all 50 states over issues like automatic renewal, the pricing of services, and efforts to enroll consumers in additional contracts or contract terms.

Comcast is seeking DirecTV's profits resulting from allegedly misleading misrepresentations, exemplary and punitive damages, legal costs, and an injunction. The lawsuit was filed by Douglas Masters at Loeb & Loeb.

UPDATE: DirecTV gave us this statement: "We believe that Comcast's complaint is completely without merit and plan to defend ourselves vigorously."

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner