Angelos turns up Comcast volume

Cable at fault in Nats blackout, he testifies


WASHINGTON -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos lambasted Comcast Corp. for monopolistic practices and implored the cable giant to televise Washington Nationals games during a congressional hearing yesterday on the standoff that has left 1.3 million D.C.-area households unable to watch their home team.

In sometimes biting language, Angelos told the House Committee on Government Reform that he negotiated a reasonable compensation package when the Montreal Expos moved to Washington and that Comcast is refusing to do business with his Mid-Atlantic Sports Network because it fears competition for its Comcast SportsNet.

"That's why they don't like us," Angelos said. "That's why we've been castigated and vilified. Because we offer competition for them."

He added that Comcast has been unwilling to negotiate on a distribution deal. "I urge you to put the pressure on," he told the congressional panel. "They should put those games on right now."

Comcast is refusing to carry games produced by Angelos' MASN. Company officials argued yesterday that Major League Baseball made a bad deal in giving Angelos control of television rights for the competing Nationals. They said he's demanding too much from Comcast to carry a network with no programming aside from Nationals games.

"Somebody has to say no," said David L. Cohen, executive vice president for Comcast. "Enough is enough. It's time to protect customers' rights."

He said the current deal will cripple the Nationals by funneling their cable revenues to Angelos. "You're going to have a second-class franchise in a first-class city," he said. "And somebody's going to be standing around screaming, `How did this happen?' "

Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, called the sides before his committee in hopes of fostering a compromise.

"We've waited for a team in this region for over 30 years," Davis said. "And to get fewer games this year than we did last year, it's a slap in the face. It's like getting half a team."

At the end of their first public confrontation, Comcast officials and Angelos said they are willing to negotiate. But neither side showed signs of compromising on the underlying issues.

Angelos introduced the idea of merging MASN with Comcast SportsNet, which broadcasts Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals games. He said such negotiations would be difficult "but we're prepared to work at it."

"Within that parameter of protecting our customers, we're open to discussing anything," Cohen said of the merger notion.

If the sides don't reach an agreement by 2007, Baltimore-area Comcast subscribers might be unable to see Orioles games slated to be broadcast on MASN (this is the last year of the club's deal with Comcast SportsNet).

Yesterday's hearing was the most recent example of Davis using the committee he chairs to exert pressure on a baseball issue. Last year, he called hearings on steroids, forcing some of the game's biggest stars to testify and ultimately pressing commissioner Bud Selig to negotiate a tougher and more comprehensive testing policy.

Davis alluded to Congress' oversight power on cable issues. "It's not a good reflection on the industry to have everybody fighting over dollars when nobody is losing money," he said.

The dispute is rooted in the compensation Angelos negotiated from Major League Baseball when the Expos moved to Washington. Baseball officials gave the Orioles 90 percent control of a regional cable network that would broadcast both teams' games. Angelos must pay annual rights fees to the Nationals ($20 million this year), and the Washington franchise will eventually own 33 percent of the network.

Robert A. DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of MLB, said the deal is good for the Nationals. "What they're getting is a full rights deal, but they're also getting a plus," he said.

Cohen, however, called the deal the "original sin" of the dispute.

"By doing this, MLB has tried to foist onto D.C.-area cable customers - your constituents, Mr. Chairman - their obligation to compensate the Orioles," Cohen said. "That is unfair to our customers, and it's just plain wrong."

Cohen said the deal between MLB and Angelos should be torn up and that Nationals' television rights should be made available to all cable distributors.

On the legal front, Comcast maintains that the creation of MASN violated its 10-year-old contract to broadcast Orioles games. The cable company filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court last year, but the case was dismissed. Comcast's appeal is scheduled to be heard by the state's highest court later this year.

The Orioles, meanwhile, filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, saying Comcast was using its virtual monopoly of area cable distribution to stifle a competing network. Comcast SportsNet had been the area's only regional sports network until MASN was created.

"We've made our decisions and joined in a contract with Major League Baseball," Angelos said. "We intend to see that contract enforced."

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