O's blocking broadcasts, Comcast says

Cable giant, team battle over Nationals TV rights

July 13, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Comcast Corp. accused Orioles owner Peter Angelos of intentionally obstructing broadcasts of Washington Nationals games, in a statement issued yesterday along with a filing in the continuing legal battle between the club and the cable giant.

"Peter Angelos and the Orioles have knowingly created a situation where cable carriers predictably would not carry MASN and, thus, many Washington Nationals' games," said Comcast spokeswoman D'Arcy Rudnay. "This is particularly regrettable given that, unlike Mr. Angelos, Comcast supported the return of Major League Baseball to Washington, D.C., and offered to broadcast the Nats games on far more favorable terms than is the case with MASN."

The Orioles, meanwhile, have accused Comcast of using its dominant market position to keep Nationals games off the air in hopes of obtaining a piece of the regional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

"Comcast wants to keep the games off of cable to protect its monopoly in the D.C. area," said attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., who represents TCR Sports, the Orioles' cable arm. "By personally attacking a Major League Baseball owner who has challenged Comcast's monopoly, Comcast has again proven that it's only concerned about protecting its monopoly position."

Angelos was out of town yesterday and did not return a call seeking comment.

In the court filing, Comcast asked a Montgomery County circuit judge not to dismiss its lawsuit against the Orioles, filed in April.

The team's motion to dismiss the case is scheduled to be heard in court later this month. "Comcast's filing today is a deliberate distortion of the facts and the law," Murphy said. "No matter how Comcast spins its web, it cannot construct a legally supportable claim."

Comcast, which controls cable distribution for the majority of the Baltimore-Washington area, is refusing to air Nationals games produced by MASN. The Orioles own 90 percent of that network and plan to produce and broadcast Orioles games on MASN starting in 2007.

But Comcast is suing the club, saying its plans violate Comcast's exclusive rights to negotiate an extension of Orioles television rights, which expire after next season.

If no deal is reached by November, court documents say, the contract gives Comcast the right to match any offer the Orioles receive from a third party.

"Our response today makes clear that TCR/MASN is a third party jointly owned by the Orioles and MLB, and to which the Orioles have taken clear and elaborate steps to transfer their TV rights in violation of their contract with Comcast," Rudnay said in yesterday's statement. "MASN is thus a network operating in violation of the law."

But lawyers for the Orioles and Angelos argue MASN is another name for TCR Sports, the club's broadcasting arm, and not a third party covered by the deal with Comcast.

"This case is simple; there is no third party," Murphy said. "The Nats and O's and MLB did not form a new entity. MASN is simply TCR's trade name and TCR has existed since 1996."

Attorneys for the Orioles have said Comcast SportsNet filed the lawsuit only after Comcast Corp. failed to secure a piece of MASN.

Comcast officials deny ever seeking equity in the network.

The Orioles also filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission last month, saying Comcast was unfairly using its dominance of local cable distribution to strong-arm the Orioles into selling a piece of MASN to the cable giant.

The Orioles and Major League Baseball agreed to join in a regional network as part of negotiations relating to the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington.

Though the Orioles own 90 percent of MASN under the deal, struck in April, the Nationals could eventually own as much as a third of the network.

With Comcast refusing to broadcast MASN-produced games pending the resolution of its lawsuit, subscribers in the Washington area see only games carried on Washington stations WTTG/Channel 5 and WDCA/Channel 20, as well as the few games nationally broadcast.

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