Will Comcast’s Starz Feud Draw in Antitrust Enforcers?

Starz 50 Cent Power - H 2015

Starz 50 Cent Power - H 2015

U.S. lawmakers and 50 Cent are already rallying behind Starz.

There's no love lost between Comcast and Lionsgate as their carriage renewal talks for Starz hit an impasse.

Could that lead to the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department’s antitrust watchdogs investigating Comcast for violating antitrust laws and squeezing out competition?

It all follows Comcast announcing it will swap in MGM’s Epix for 17 Starz channels in its main Premier channel lineup Dec. 10, and make Starz a $12 a month add-on for its customers after Dec. 31. A Comcast rep told The Hollywood Reporter that Starz has no grounds for antitrust action as routine carriage renewal talks continue.

"Program carriage issues have never provided a basis for plausible antitrust concerns. Today, with the current state of the market where programmers have so many options, it is hard to see any viable antitrust claim against a distributor," the Comcast spokesperson said. 

Comcast is getting set to tell Starz subscribers to tap Amazon Prime, Apple TV or other streaming options to keep watching the premium service after Dec. 10.

The potential loss of Starz and Starz Encore for Comcast cable TV subscribers has the Lionsgate-owned premium network behind the scenes pulling out all the stops on the lobbying front. Power executive producer Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is front and center on social media and in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to alert U.S. lawmakers.

On Oct. 31, 50 Cent posted to his Twitter account a photo of himself alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he called “My #1 Lady" after meeting with her. The chorus of politicians criticizing Comcast for booting Starz from its main bundle includes House Judiciary Committee member Hakeem Jeffries, who in an Oct. 30 letter to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch from six members of Congress said production jobs and popular TV series of "particular cultural significance to the African-American community" stood to be lost.

And Baltimore City Council in October voted unanimously to flag to the DOJ, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission that Comcast wasn't complying with its franchise obligation to "offer content particularly viewed by diverse audiences."

Sen. Susan Collins in a Sept. 19 letter to the DOJ is understood to have argued Comcast's disrupting the Starz service potentially lessened competition in the pay TV programming and distribution markets and limited market choice for American consumers.

THR has learned the DOJ’s antitrust division has responded to Sen. Collins’ letter by indicating it is monitoring Comcast to ensure fair market competition even after its consent decree stemming from the media giant’s 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal recently expired.

Lionsgate Vice Chairman Michael Burns on Nov. 8 told CNBC that Comcast continues to market Starz in its main channel package for premium services, which has new subscribers signing up for a one- or two-year deal, only to learn Dec. 10 that the Starz service will only be available elsewhere for added cost.

"That to me seems disingenuous," Burns told CNBC. With known IP being the gold standard for content distributors, Lionsgate has been alerting Comcast's Xfinity subscribers they will lose access to popular Starz series like Power and Outlander that they value as fans.

Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer on an analyst call in early November also pointed to recent distribution deals Starz struck with Dish Networks and AT&T as evidence that win-win agreements can be made in the cord-cutting era.

But Comcast maintains no formal DOJ investigation has been opened, and it has received no subpoenas or document requests from regulatory watchdogs. For that to happen, Starz would need to prove Comcast is standing in the way of rival streaming services offering the premium channel to their own subscribers — which the cable and media giant vigorously denies.

Comcast insists fans of Starz will continue to easily get the premium service via Roku, Amazon Prime and other streaming options, or directly through a Starz subscription service. "No matter the outcome of the ongoing discussions, no Comcast customer will lose access to Starz since it is available on Amazon Prime, including through Comcast’s X1 platform (though not exclusively), and many other online outlets," the Comcast representative told THR.

"All we are asking for is the same treatment for our customers," the Comcast spokesperson added. But Wall Street analysts point to the Comcast-Starz dispute casting a shadow over the pay-TV industry as pulling popular shows and services from subscribers has become a common bargaining chip in the cord-cutting era.

"We don't know the nexus of the dispute, but it's more than just 'price.' Commonly for premium nets it's also about minimum guarantees, how much of the economics are fixed versus variable. Don't know here," Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger said in a Nov. 8 research note.

Acting CBS CEO Joe Ianniello on Nov. 12 was asked during an analyst call whether he expected to be at loggerheads with Comcast when one of his own upcoming carriage agreements involving Showtime comes up for renewal with negotiations next year.

"Our approach will be the same: I don't believe all content is equal, where you can interchange shows for people as we seek out the content they want. I look at the track record of Showtime and the quality content they have on the air, as well as the CBS television network. We've been successful with every other distributor, getting paid fair market value, so we would fully expect the same," Ianniello argued.