Washington --The Federal Communications Commission yesterday approved a likely remedy to a nagging Washington Nationals problem: Most of the team's television broadcasts aren't available to more than a million area fans who subscribe to Comcast Cable.
The FCC gave the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which holds television rights to the Nationals, the opportunity to pursue binding arbitration to become part of Comcast's lineup. Comcast currently won't carry the network, saying MASN proposes to charge too much money to be included.
The FCC's decision is important not only to Nationals fans who want to see games, but also to Orioles fans. That's because MASN, controlled by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, plans to begin telecasting Orioles games when the club's deal with Comcast SportsNet expires at the end of this season.
"This is a great day for sports fans in Washington and Baltimore," Angelos said yesterday in a prepared statement. "MASN is committed to getting the widest possible distribution for the Nationals and the Orioles, and today's decision will serve to end the blackout that has affected Nationals fans throughout the region."
The FCC's decision doesn't guarantee that MASN's sports broadcasts will be available on Comcast next season. But it creates a powerful new incentive for Comcast and MASN to reach an agreement, or else have a third party - an arbitrator - decide the matter for them.
The decision means Comcast must "hammer out a deal" with MASN to start making games available on Comcast's cable systems, said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. "I believe this is the right thing to do. Many members of Congress agree," Copps said.
The FCC's action was made as part of its approval of the sale to Comcast and Time Warner of the assets of bankrupt Adelphia Communications Corp. As a condition of the sale, the FCC said it wanted to protect the rights of regional sports networks not affiliated with large cable providers.
"It's about time," Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club, said in an e-mail yesterday. "At last, there's the hope Nats fans all over the area will be able to see the majority of our team's games on TV, just like baseball fans everywhere else."
It was too soon to know exactly how the arbitration process would work, or how long it would take. The parties were still waiting yesterday for the commission's final paperwork.
MASN and Comcast are expected to be asked to try to resolve the issue before arbitration would begin.
Orioles officials said privately that they were heartened that the commission has indicated that the arbitration process would proceed under a timetable. The club expects the matter to be resolved before next season.
Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said yesterday that he hadn't yet seen the decision. "The one thing everybody in Washington, D.C., wants is to get the games on television, but I don't want to comment beyond that," Bowden said.
The FCC acted after three members of Congress wrote to the commission last month suggesting that arbitration be used to resolve the television stalemate.
Reps. Tom Davis and Jim Moran of Virginia and Albert Wynn of Maryland said in the letter that the stalemate is preventing 1.3 million Comcast subscribers from viewing 75 percent of this season's Nationals games. MASN is carried by some other providers, but not by Comcast.
Davis, chairman of a House committee that has investigated steroid use by ballplayers, said yesterday that Nationals fans should "rejoice."
"I am hopeful that today's action by the FCC leads to a quick resolution between Comcast and MASN to get the Nationals games where they belong - on the air, available to all cable subscribers," Davis said.
Comcast issued a statement yesterday extolling the "overwhelming public benefits" of Comcast's and Time Warner's acquisition of Adelphia. The statement did not address the MASN situation, and Comcast spokeswoman D'Arcy Rudnay said she could not discuss it.
Comcast has argued that MASN's plans violate its contract with the Orioles.