Nats fans still out of luck on cable

But federal pressure on Comcast may get deal with O's done

March 31, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

With another baseball season about to start, the Orioles and Comcast Corp. seem no closer than ever to a deal that would allow fans in Washington's Maryland and Virginia suburbs to watch the Nationals on a new regional cable network.

More troubling still for Baltimore-area baseball lovers, if the sides cannot reach an agreement by the 2007 season, many Orioles games might not be available to more than 1 million households.

But a new player, Congress, has entered the fray, and those frustrated with the impasse hope federal pressure can bring Comcast and the Orioles together.

"I think you're about to see it move much faster," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Democrat whose Montgomery County district includes many of the fans unable to see Nationals games.

Franchot's hopes rose when Rep. Tom Davis appeared at a rally on the issue Sunday at RFK Stadium.

Davis, a Republican from Virginia, chairs a congressional committee that deals with cable issues, and Comcast might need to seek his favor on several legislative matters in the next year. Davis showed he was willing to apply pressure on baseball matters last year when he called for steroid hearings and pushed for a stricter testing policy.

Davis spokesman Robert White said the congressman is still gathering facts on the dispute, but he and fellow Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat, have said hearings are possible if it isn't resolved quickly.

"We must now rally supporters and call on Comcast to swallow a bitter pill for the sake of the fans," Moran said at the Sunday rally.

The Orioles hope congressional scrutiny can be a hastening factor.

"It should be," said Arnold Weiner, who argued for the Orioles when Comcast sued over the creation of a regional network. "Comcast is a huge enterprise, and they can have all sorts of problems if their irrational behavior comes to the attention of Congress."

The standoff began when Major League Baseball granted Orioles owner Peter Angelos 90 percent ownership of a new regional cable network as compensation for the Washington team's encroachment on the Orioles' market.

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network began producing and broadcasting Nationals games last season. Orioles games appeared on Comcast SportsNet last year and will again this year, but will move to MASN next year.

Comcast SportsNet filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court last year, claiming the creation of the cable network violated its contract with the Orioles. A judge threw that case out, but the state's highest court is scheduled to hear Comcast's appeal later this year.

Comcast officials also say Angelos is asking for an unreasonable payoff from the cable distributor, one that would force rate increases.

Neither side is backing off its rhetoric.

"Now, Mr. Angelos is holding the Nats' television rights hostage by trying to impose an unjustified price increase on Comcast customers to carry a less-than-part-time network," said Comcast spokeswoman D'Arcy Rudnay.

"We will not agree to pay this increase and will protect our customers from fees that will simply provide Mr. Angelos with more money."

Responded MASN spokesman Todd Webster: "Our position is that we've tried six ways to Sunday to get Comcast to put MASN on the air. What's going on is that Comcast is trying to protect a monopoly on its regional sports network, trying to kill off MASN."

MASN has negotiated distribution deals with a number of cable and satellite carriers, including DirecTV, Cox Communications and Verizon FiOS. The network has also run ads in The Washington Post saying it wants to bring Nationals games to fans, but can't because of Comcast.

But Comcast remains the dominant provider for most of Maryland and parts of Northern Virginia, and that means more than 1 million households have no access to the new channel. MASN officials say they've offered several proposals over the past year but haven't received substantive replies from the Philadelphia-based cable giant.

Meanwhile, legislators and fans have been increasing the pressure on Comcast to give in and carry Nationals games.

"I'm confident this will eventually work itself out," said Ian Koski, a rabid fan who writes for the Web site NationalsPride.com. "But I don't want it to take so long that this new team, which needs all the help it can get in building a fan base, loses that opportunity."

Koski lives in an Alexandria, Va., condominium complex that subscribes to Comcast cable and won't allow DirecTV dishes. He said the Nationals' efforts to woo fans are severely hampered by the lack of televised games available to most viewers. Over-the-air stations will carry 43 this season - seven on WTTG/Channel 5 and 36 on WDCA/Channel 20.

Koski started a petition on his Web site last year and hopes to present 500 signatures along with letters from public officials to Comcast next week.

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