Comcast and a group of cable broadcasters are trying to block a Maine law that would allow customers to pick and choose among the channels they want to buy.

The law, which was scheduled to take effect a week from this Friday, would require cable companies to let consumers pick the channels they want to watch and pay for them individually. Currently, cable companies offer packages of channels that don’t give customers the option of dropping some they don’t want and, in return, paying less for cable service.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Bangor argues that “an array of federal statutory provisions precludes Maine from dictating how cable programming is presented to consumers.” It also violates the First Amendment by seeking to interfere with cable companies’ editorial control over which channels to offer, the lawsuit says.

The federal rules that bar á la carte offerings are designed to prevent cable operators from having to deal with “micromanagement by 50 different states and myriad local governments,” the lawsuit says.

If allowed to stand, Maine’s law would result in higher costs and less choice, the suit contends. The lawsuit asks for an injunction preventing the law from taking effect in addition to a declaratory judgment that the law is invalid.

Representatives of Comcast and Charter Communications, the parent company of Spectrum, both spoke against the bill before the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee in the Maine Legislature, which eventually backed the proposal in a divided vote in May before the measure was approved by the full Legislature. Both companies argued that an á la carte system would lead to higher costs and less choice as channels that didn’t gain a lot of subscribers folded.

Barry Hobbins, the public advocate, the state’s consumer watchdog, also testified, saying his office neither supported nor opposed the law.

Hobbins said that many customers are highly frustrated with their cable companies, particularly over their inability to pay for only the channels they want. He said his office supports consumer choice but also said cable systems are usually regulated at the federal level, where efforts to force á la carte offerings have gone nowhere. He said the cable companies have been effective at arguing that federal regulations preempt local or state laws on cable systems.

Josh Tardy, the lead lawyer for Comcast and the cable channels, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday. The channels include the A&E Network, C-SPAN, Disney, Fox and New England Sports Network.

Marc Malone, a spokesman for Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, said the office had no comment at this time. In addition to the Attorney General’s Office, Gov. Janet Mills and 15 individual towns are named as defendants.


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