Pac-12 Network sues Dish for withholding programming fees

The Pac-12 Network has filed a civil lawsuit against satellite and streaming company Dish Network, claiming the pay television service withheld payment during the COVID-19 pandemic in violation of its carriage agreement.

According to the lawsuit, Pac-12 Network says the agreement requires it to provide a certain number of college football games during a season. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pac-12 Network only aired one game; as a consequence, the network says it offered Dish a rebate because that year's football season was shortened.

The rebate was not enough to satiate Dish, Pac-12 Network claims, with the pay TV company demanding additional rebates for the previous two seasons held in 2018 and 2019. According to the lawsuit, Dish claims it is entitled to a refund for those two seasons because of the pandemic as well, even though Pac-12 Network says it provided the agreed upon amount of college football during those seasons.

"DISH’s baseless position—that the shortened Pac-12 Conference football season during the 2020-2021 contract year, caused entirely by an unprecedented and unforeseeable global pandemic, allows it to claw back license fees for the two years prior—is contrary to the plain language of the parties’ agreement," the complaint says. "And to make matters worse, DISH now has begun to engage in impermissible self-help by withholding currently due license payments on the basis of its unjustified position, and is therefore in breach of the parties’ agreement."

The heavily-redacted complaint offers sparse details on the specificity of the fees that Dish pays Pac-12 Network in exchange for the right to distribute its channels and programming to Dish subscribers and customers of its streaming TV service, Sling TV. Exact financial amounts were blacked out from a copy of the complaint obtained by Fierce Video earlier this week, but Pac-12 Network says its filing is permissible in federal court because the complaint involves damages that exceed $75,000.

A Dish spokesperson declined to comment, telling Fierce Video it does not provide statements on pending legal matters.

Spurred in part by demands from lawmakers and district attorneys, some pay television companies opted to refund their customers after paying regional sports fees for programming that didn't air due to the pandemic. In New York state, officials reached an agreement with Dish and six other pay TV systems last year that saw $76 million in rebates go back to customers due to a lack of sports telecasts.

Few examples exist of Dish refunding other customers for a lack of sports programming. Instead, during the pandemic, Dish took an aggressive stance against regional sports networks, opting to drop the networks when it came time to make new carriage deals.

Dish executives complain that the programming offered by regional sports networks is not consumed enough by customers to justify higher costs that are requested when it comes time to make a new deal.

"The current RSN model is fundamentally broken," Dish executive Brian Neylon complained last year after the company pulled several Comcast-owned sports networks from its services. "This model requires nearly all customers to pay for RSNs when only a small percentage of customers actually watch them. As the cost of these channels continues to escalate, we no longer think it makes sense to include them in our TV lineup."

As it did with the Comcast-owned networks, Dish also dropped several Fox Sports-branded (now Bally's Sports) channels owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, with executives again saying the move was justified by a demand for higher fees. Still, it wasn't enough for the company to avoid raising subscription prices on consumers; last year, the company imposed two fee increases, despite prolonged carriage disputes with programmers.

The lawsuit with Pac-12 Network takes a similar, but also different, tone, in that the programmer claims Dish is failing to uphold certain provisions of a carriage agreement already in place. The exact amount Dish has failed to pay Pac-12 Network isn't available because the amount is redacted in the complaint obtained by Fierce Video, but the redaction for the amount owed is slightly larger than the amount Pac-12 Network says it offered to refund Dish for the shortened 2020 football season.

Pac-12 Network is asking for a trial by jury, with financial compensation to be awarded based on the proximity of damages. It is also asking a court to prevent Dish from withholding fees in the future.