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Federal judge to rule on Maine law requiring cable companies to unbundle channels

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A ruling is expected from a federal judge on a new state law that would require cable companies to let consumers choose specific channels instead of packaged bundles.

The Maine Legislature passed the first of its kind law earlier this year. Cable provider Comcast and nine cable broadcasters, including NBC/Universal, Fox Cable and Disney, summarily sued to block it.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, told the Portland Press Herald that he filed the measure after hearing from senior citizens who no longer could afford cable service. Allowing them to select which channels to subscribe to could provide cost savings.

“The cable companies are hemorrhaging customers,” Evangelos said. “You’d think they’d embrace this bill as a savior for their industry. The truth is, they are already offering à-la-carte, pay per view, and streaming services when it suits them. Now it’s time they offered programming that suits their customers, who are demanding reforms and action.”

In a hearing before U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen last week, Matthew Brill, an attorney for Comcast, argued that federal rules prevent states and municipalities from imposing limitations on cable companies, and that the First Amendment guaranteed the cable company’s rights to oversee its program offerings and how they are structured.

Christopher Taub, a lawyer for the state, told Torresen that Comcast seemed to be masking business decisions in violation of the Constitution.

“They’re saying they have a First Amendment right to require that if a customer wants CNN, they also have to buy HGTV,” he said.

Several TV industry advocacy groups have filed briefs in support of Comcast’s challenge to the Maine law. The president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters said it could undermine support for basic tier service like local broadcast stations.

Judge Torrenson has not indicated when she will issue a ruling on the temporary restraining order sought by the cable companies.