AUGUSTA, Maine — The telecommunications giant Comcast and cable operators including Fox, CBS and Disney sued Maine and 17 municipalities Friday, saying a new state law aimed at enshrining a la carte cable TV is preempted by federal law.
The lawsuit was foreshadowed in debate in the Maine Legislature over the bill, which added one line to state law saying “a cable system operator shall offer subscribers the option of purchasing access to cable channels, or programs on cable channels, individually.”
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, was a pioneering attempt to address a common complaint with TV viewers that they must buy a cable package to watch channels they want while also paying for lots of channels they do not want.
As a response, the phenomenon of “cord-cutting” has proliferated. A 2019 survey from West Monroe Partners, a business consulting firm, found that Mainers were cutting cable at a higher rate than in all but 10 other states. Providers have responded with streaming services.
Evangelos defended the proposal by telling WGME in March, “I want to watch the Red Sox, but I don’t want to watch [televangelist] Jimmy Swaggart, so I shouldn’t be forced to pay for that.” Comcast and Charter Communications argued it was preempted by federal law.
Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins noted that providers had successfully argued that in other debates in the past, but the Federal Communications Commission told Hobbins in a letter that whether the state law would be preempted was “a question of first impression” and there were no commission rulings that address the a la carte issue.
In part because of that letter, the law passed largely along party lines and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills allowed it to go into law without her signature. It is set to take effect Sept. 19.
Comcast and a raft of cable providers — including the New England Sports Network — which broadcasts Boston Red Sox games and is largely owned by the team’s parent company — filed the lawsuit Friday in U.S. District Court, asking a judge to delay the law’s effective date and throw it out, making the preemption argument and saying it violates free-speech rights.
The law “would imperil the survival of many programming networks, particularly those serving niche audiences, thereby detracting from programming diversity and quality,” according to the lawsuit, filed by Maine lobbyist Josh Tardy and Washington, D.C.-based lawyers for Comcast.
Mills, Attorney General Aaron Frey and Maine municipalities including Brunswick, Bath, Topsham, Freeport and Kittery were named in the lawsuit. Frey spokesman Marc Malon said Monday the attorney general’s office had no comment on the lawsuit.